- Ken Perrotte
Virginia Bear Hunters Have Record-Setting Season
If you are a bear hunter in Virginia,
then these are likely your "good old days."
A decade or so ago, Virginia deer hunters might have been able to say they were in the middle of “the good old days” for chasing whitetails. It appears Virginia bear hunters may now be able to stake the same claim. Bear hunters completed the 2019-2020 season with 3,540 bears, a 30% increase over last year’s number and 38% above the 5-year average.
Deer hunters fared better, too, tagging 206,976 deer in Virginia, up about 9% from the 190,636 deer taken during the same time frame the previous season.
The increased deer hunting success wasn’t wholly unanticipated.
In a media release announcing the annual harvest statistics, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Project Leader Matt Knox said the majority of the 2019-2020 deer increase can be attributed to regulation changes designed to take more antlerless deer.
“These changes did significantly increase the number of antlerless deer taken by more than 10,000 animals from fall 2018 to fall 2019. In addition, weather was favorable during prime hunting periods this past fall compared to the previous year, and acorn crops were poor or spotty in many areas, likely making deer more visible to hunters as they moved widely in search of food,” Knox said.
My own anecdotal experiences bear out Knox’ assertions. We had very little hard mast crop in this region. Deer readily moved toward accessible green fields. Hunting around those fields made it easier to fill a tag. It can also create a typical food plot illusion that there are more deer than really exist on a landscape. When food sources are ample and dispersed, deer can also be more scattered.
Statewide, this year’s deer total included 99,994 antlered bucks, 901 bucks that had shed their antlers, 13,820 button bucks, and 92,261 does (45%). I don’t recall DGIF previously tracking deer that had shed antlers, but it seems like a good idea.
The youth and apprentice deer hunting weekend resulted in 2,067 deer. Archers took 30,185 deer or 15% of the total. Muzzleloader hunters took 54,112 deer or 26%. The rest came via the general firearms deer season.
The totals don’t include deer kill data for late urban archery or special late antlerless only deer seasons, or deer killed on out-of-season permits. Annual deer harvest totals by county dating back to 1947 can be found at www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/harvest.
Hunters using hounds were again were the most productive when it came to the bear. Dogs were used by 67% of the successful hunters. Hound hunters made up the majority of the firearms harvest (73%) and the youth/apprentice harvest (83%).
The early three-day bear season saw 429 bears taken. Youth and Apprentice hunters killed 128 bears during their special weekend. Archers also had good success, tagging 922 bears.
Female bears, called sows, accounted for 44% of the total bear kill.
Biologists said the year’s record bear kill was likely due to multiple factors, including more hunters who could take bears and significant regulation changes to increase bear hunting opportunities in eastern and southwestern Virginia. Licensed bear hunters increased from 52,084 in 2018–2019 to 66,590 during the 2019–2020 season. Most purchased the Sportsman’s Hunting and Fishing license. Successful non-resident hunters came from 30 states and accounted for 8% of the total reported harvest.
Similar to the deer situation, last year’s poor mast crop may have contributed to bear hunter success, especially during the earlier seasons. For more bear information, see www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear.
The fall turkey season saw decreased hunter success, with 2,018 birds killed, down 15% lower from the previous year. Counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains dropped 5% while counties west of the mountains fell by 26%.
Fall hunting numbers can fluctuate due to a variety of factors, including season length and timing, annual variation in reproductive success, acorn abundance, hunting pressure and weather.
The fall season was reduced last year in 32 counties where populations were either declining or stable and expanded in several others where populations allowed. Gary Norman, DGIF’s wild turkey project leader, said, “Despite efforts to promote interest in fall turkey hunting, the long-term decline of fall turkey hunters and turkey hunting effort may be having the biggest influence on the relatively low fall kill. Other states have seen similar decreases in fall turkey hunting interest by sportsmen.” For more information, see www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/turkey/management-plan.
Additional results from DGIF’s 2019 testing program revealed chronic wasting disease in 20 deer killed in Disease Management Area 1. Thirteen were in Frederick County, five in Shenandoah County and two in Clarke County.
As we previously reported, one deer harvested in Fauquier County also tested positive for the disease during the 2019 hunting season. No CWD-positive deer were detected in Disease Management Area 2, which includes Culpeper, Madison, and Orange Counties, where CWD was detected for the first time in one deer in 2018.
More than 1,100 deer from DMA1 were tested for CWD last season and over 1,600 samples were collected in DMA2.
For more about CWD, see wwwdgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/disease/cwd.