"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 johnmc...@wvgazette.com.