CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- The curtain is about to lift on West Virginia's firearm bear season, but there might not be many players left on the stage.
A disastrously poor acorn crop has caused many bears to hibernate early, and a quirk in the calendar has given hunters a late start on those bears that have remained active.
Chris Ryan, supervisor of game management services for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the combination bodes ill for the season, which begins Monday and ends Dec. 31.
"Bears rely heavily on acorns for their pre-hibernation food supply," Ryan explained. "This year there weren't many acorns. When bears can't find enough to eat, they go to their [hibernation] dens early. Based on this year's oak-mast failure, we're likely to see a lot more bears in their dens."
Mast conditions usually vary from region to region. This fall's oak failure is different.
"It was across the entire state, so bears have been going into hibernation all over," Ryan said.
Early hibernation wouldn't have been as much of a problem if the season had started earlier. This year, however, it starts as late as it possibly can.
The opening and closing dates for West Virginia's firearm seasons for deer and bears are tied to the Thanksgiving holiday. The deer season begins on the Monday before Thanksgiving and lasts for two weeks. The bear season begins immediately afterward.
This year, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 28, the latest on the calendar it possibly can. So by extension, the deer season began as late as possible, and the bear season will do likewise.
"The late start has given even more bears a chance to go into hibernation," Ryan said.
DNR officials went into the season expecting a record-breaking bear harvest, primarily because hunters in the state's mountain counties were allowed to kill bears during the recently concluded buck firearm season.
The prediction might still come true, but Ryan acknowledged that the acorn failure threw a sizable monkey wrench into the works.