Black bears

A black bear climbs a tree. 

Clint’s on vacation in the Smokies this week, so here’s one of his from the summer of 2014.

The big black bruins that roam the hills and hollows of West Virginia have come a long way since the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1980 there were 47 bears killed by hunters, and the population statewide was estimated around 500. Fast-forward to today where the bruin population is estimated at 12,000 statewide and it’s easy to see how the population has grown and expanded. The black bear, Ursus americanus, was selected as West Virginia’s official state animal in 1954-55. 

Recently, black bear sightings have been reported in all 55 counties of West Virginia. In 2008 the DNR created an early bear season in September due to the rising populations. The season has continued in selected counties, mainly those in the mountains.

Due to the population explosion, the DNR lifted the ban on hunting in the Cranberry Black Bear Sanctuary for the first time in more than 25 years. In 2007 bear hunting was allowed in the Cranberry Backcountry, and it has continued to remain open. So if you’re looking for a good place to bag a bear this fall, you might look here.

There was just no need for the sanctuary anymore, as its main purpose was to establish black bear populations in the state in the 1970s. The reason Cranberry was chosen, besides its vast undisturbed acreage, was its central location. The idea was the bears would spread outward from the central location.

During the years before hunting was allowed, there were many bear encounters with campers as the bears there had started losing their fear of humans. This is never a good thing, as once a bear starts associating humans with food, problems arise. The DNR receives approximately 1,000 nuisance bear complaints every year. 

Some of these nuisance bears have to be put down as result because they are a threat to human safety. With hunting now allowed in the Cranberry Backcountry, those bears have begun to somewhat fear humans again, and it has helped cut down on the number of nuisance bears. 

I’ve already seen 3 bears so far this year and one was last week as they are on the move. The reason why they’re moving is because now is the breeding time for black bears. Females, or sows, become reproductively mature around the age of 3-4 and reproduce every other year. Males, or boars, become mature around the age of 5. Mating takes place in June and into the 1st of July. 

A sow will have anywhere from 1-4 cubs in January or February, and the cubs will stay with her for 2 years. After that, the sow will run the 2-year-old cubs off, and she will be ready to mate again. If for some reason the cubs die, the sow may mate again the following year.

So what’s happening right now is you have sows that have just run their last year cubs off, and those 2 year old bears are wandering around on their own for the first time in their lives. Add breeding season to the equation and you have males on a mad search for a receptive female. Then you have the sows that had cubs this year that are out and about. The bears are definitely moving and year in, year out that’s the case in June and when I have had the majority of my bear encounters.

Bears are known to travel great distances, especially boars on the move searching for a receptive sow. They are great tree climbers and eat a variety of foods. They are omnivores but are more herbivores than carnivores. Nuts, berries, roots and other soft and hard masts make up most of their diet. Carrion, small rodents, frogs, fish and insects are also food sources.

It has been found that in years with heavy mast the gun hunters fair better than the bow hunters and vice versa if the mast is spotty. In years with heavy mast, bears don’t move much during the archery season, making them harder to hunt. However, when the mast is plentiful, bears will stay out longer before climbing into winter dens, making them more available to gun hunters. 

On the flip side, during low mast years like last year, archery hunters attribute to a higher kill as the bears are on the move and cover more ground in search of food. They also tend to den up earlier in low mast years, making them less abundant during the December gun season.

Pregnant females, or sows, are usually the first bears to den up for the winter. Our traditional bear gun season was geared to protect the sows and increase the population. Since 1977, it’s always opened sometime after Dec. 1. The plan worked and since then the black bear populations in West Virginia have been on the rise. 

The black bear is a huge success story here in West Virginia, and our DNR has done a wonderful job of helping re-establish the population to where they are today. They are truly a magnificent animal and a joy to watch in the wild…  from a safe distance that is. o

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