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State’s bear hunters could face long odds

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.

"The mast failure, especially with the season falling as late as possible, has the potential to have a huge impact on hunters' success," he said.

The news isn't all bad, though; Ryan said many bears are still out roaming the woods in search of food.

"A lot of sub-adult bears will be out," he said. "Most of the bears that hibernated early are adults. Young bears tend to stay out longer, so they'll be available to hunters."

So far, too, the weather hasn't been a factor. Last October, when superstorm Sandy dumped more than 3 feet of snow on the state's mountainous areas, the cold and lack of forage sent bears into hibernation far earlier than usual.

"We haven't had any really bad weather yet," Ryan said. "There haven't been any big snowfalls, and temperatures have been pretty ordinary. If bears have gone into hibernation, it hasn't been because of the weather. It's because they couldn't find anything to eat."

Until biologists count game-check tags in early January, they won't know how hunters fared during the three bear seasons that already have concluded — the early firearm season, the archery season and the concurrent buck-bear season.

"From the field reports I've been getting, though, it appears the harvest has been very good so far," Ryan said.

Most of the hunters afield during the upcoming firearm season will be using dogs, which should work in their favor. Ryan said sportsmen who did some pre-season scouting should have a good general idea of where bears might be.

"It's important for hunters to find those places where food still remains," he added. "Oak was a bust statewide, but at elevations above 2,800 feet, some oaks did bear acorns. Beechnuts and hickory nuts were very abundant this year, and if any are left the bears will be focusing on them."

Ryan wouldn't speculate as to whether the DNR's record-kill forecast might be in jeopardy, but neither did he say it was impossible.

"We'll find out when we count the tags," he said.

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


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