CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wildlife officials' hopes for a banner black bear season appear to have bogged down in thigh-deep snow.
The late-October blizzard that accompanied Hurricane Sandy appears to have sent at least some bears into early hibernation.
With fewer than expected bears roaming the woods during Monday's opening of the traditional December firearm season, Division of Natural Resources biologists are scaling back their expectations.
"The outlook is still very good; it just isn't what we thought it might be," said Chris Ryan, the DNR's game management services supervisor and black bear expert. "Back in September, when we were putting together the 2012 Mast Report and Hunting Outlook, we predicted the gun harvest would come in somewhere under the record we had in 2010, but would still be high enough to rank number two.
"We expected most of those bears to come from the gun kill. But when we made that prediction, the last thing we expected was 3 feet of snow in October. When the big snow hit, some of our radio-collared animals - mainly older bears and pregnant sows - went to their dens."
Ryan said most of the early den-up behavior happened where the blizzard dumped the deepest snows, namely along a band from Beckley northeastward along the spine of the Allegheny Mountains into the base of the Eastern Panhandle.
"Those are where most our bear hunters who use dogs are located," he added. "Frankly, if I were a bear hunter I'd be open to going down into Wyoming and McDowell counties to do my hunting. Those counties are far enough away [from the area worst affected by the blizzard] that the bears might not have denned up like they did in the high-mountain counties."
Fortunately for sportsmen, a large percentage of the bear population was neither pregnant nor elderly. Ryan said plenty of bruins stayed out of their dens and are still on the prowl.
"Hunters are telling me they're still seeing plenty of bears," he said. "We had a pretty good acorn crop this year, and when that much food is readily available bears tend to stay out as long as they can. When the food starts running out, that's when they'll start hibernating."
Areas with concentrations of white oak and chestnut oak trees are probably where bear hunters will enjoy the most success.
"I've heard hunters who have gone to their favorite hunting spots saying they didn't find many acorns," Ryan said. "But just because acorns aren't abundant in one area doesn't mean they're scarce everywhere. Trust me, if there's food out there, bears will find it. I'll guarantee you the bears think this is a good year for acorns."
With that much food available, Ryan believes almost all the bears that stayed out of their dens during the freak October snowstorm will still be active during the Dec. 3-31 firearm season.
"I think hunters will be able to find ample amounts of bears," he said.
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmc...@wvgazette.com.