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Proposal would open limited number of bears to deer hunters

Courtesy photo
A regulation proposed by the West Virginia DNR would open up 19 of the state's high-mountain counties to black bear hunting during the firearm season for buck deer. Wildlife officials believe the regulation will help control bear numbers in those counties.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Deer hunters in West Virginia's mountain counties might soon have another quarry available to them:

Bears.

State wildlife officials have proposed a regulation that, if approved, would allow properly licensed deer hunters in 19 counties to kill a bear if one should happen by. The Division of Natural Resources' Chris Ryan called the proposal "a drastic change."

"If this regulation is approved as we proposed it, 29 counties - more than 50 percent of the counties in the state - would have buck gun seasons with concurrent bear hunting," Ryan said. "Last year we had just 10. It's quite a difference."

The proposal might not sit well with bear-hunting enthusiasts, who are accustomed to having the bears in those counties pretty much to themselves.

When DNR biologists described the proposal at last Sunday's meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission, one unidentified and obviously irate bear hunter spoke up and accused the agency of "giving the bears to the [expletive] deer hunters."

Ryan said that wasn't the DNR's aim at all, and added that agency officials would prevent deer hunters from killing too many bears by issuing only a limited number of permits within each county.

"Hunters will have to apply for the permits, just as they do for antlerless-deer permits in counties where those are limited," he explained. "The number of permits issued in each county will be based on the number of bears we want to have killed. We want to control the bear population in those counties, but we don't want to [have overkill]."

DNR officials have had trouble controlling populations in those counties because hunters during the traditional December firearm season tend to kill more males than females, mainly because many females have gone into hibernation by then. The proposed deer-bear season would allow hunters to kill bears at a time of year when females are still active.

The 19 counties would include Barbour, Braxton, Clay, Grant, Greenbrier, Hardy, Lewis, Mercer, Mineral, Monroe, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Summers, Taylor, Tucker, Upshur and Webster.

Colin Carpenter, the DNR's bear project leader, said permits for those counties would not be made available until September, when agency officials have conducted their annual mast survey and know how much food would be available to bears and other wildlife.

"In years when mast is abundant, bears tend to hibernate later. When mast is scarce, they hibernate sooner," he explained.

The current plan is for DNR officials to announce the number of available permits between mid- and late-September, and to conduct a random drawing for those permits not long afterward.

The agency's biologists also proposed to create a three-day mid-October firearm season for bears and do away with the unpopular six-day September firearm season.

"We think bear hunters will like that proposal," Ryan said. "They didn't like the September season because of the heat. This proposal moves that early firearm hunt back three weeks, when it should be cooler and not put as much stress on the hunters, their dogs or the bears."

The September season will remain in effect for eight southern counties where bears are especially abundant.

"We kept the September season down there in an attempt to focus hunters' attention down south, where the bag limit is two bears instead of the usual one," Ryan said.

Hunters will have a chance to comment on the proposed changes at a series of 12 public meetings held throughout the state. DNR officials have scheduled the meetings for March 18 and 19. Members of the state Natural Resources Commission will vote on the proposal at their late-April quarterly meeting.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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