By Clint Ferguson
For The Register-Herald
West Virginia bear hunters had a good year in 2012 as they set a new record with 2,683 bears taken. The previous record harvest was set in 2010, when 2,392 bears were taken statewide. The black bear harvest of 2012 marks the fourth time in the past five years that the harvest has topped 2,000, according to a recent press release put out by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR).
The WVDNR has found a correlation between mast production and black bear harvest by comparing data over the years. In years with low mast, bowhunters harvest more bears than gun hunters do in December. This is due to the fact that black bears roam and search for whatever mast they can find and then head to their dens earlier.
By the time December rolls around and gun season comes in, a lot of the sows are already in their dens. On the flip side, when more mast is present in the fall, gun hunters attribute to most of the overall bear harvest by the end of the year. The bears will stay out longer, taking advantage of the abundant food sources before heading to their dens for winter.
The weather and mast conditions varied in 2012. The massive snow storm at the end of October dropped snow measured by the foot in the mountains. It’s believed that some of the sows went to den early especially in the mountain counties. In other areas with mast the bears stayed active as the weather was fairly mild in November and December.
According to Colin Carpenter, Black Bear Project leader for the WVDNR, “The statewide oak mast index for 2012 was much higher than 2011, but the distribution was spotty. This fact, combined with two additional weeks of archery hunting, allowed archers to locate bears effectively and led to an increased archery harvest.” West Virginia bowhunters arrowed 746 bears during the 2012 archery season.
Carpenter went on to say that “abundant oak mast keeps bears active into the winter, and makes these bears vulnerable to harvest during concurrent buck-gun and bear seasons and the traditional December firearms season. Favorable mast conditions, combined with multiple counties open during September, led to a large increase in the firearms harvest.”
Bear hunters hunting during the firearms seasons harvested 1,937 bears in 2012. Half of the total took place early, as 681 bears were taken in September, and 266 were harvested during the concurrent buck/bear gun season. A total of 990 bears were harvested during the traditional December firearms season.
As winter rolls on and the snow continues to fall, the sleeping bruins are shacked up in their dens right now. Black bears will den in holes or crevices in safe places. Rock cliffs, large hollow trees, under fallen trees, even wallowed-out holes in the ground are common den sites for bears here in West Virginia.
During the fall the bruins seek out their den site and rake leaves, twigs and other plant materials into it, forming a nest. As winter approaches, the bears crawl into their cozy dens and curl into a tight ball with their heavily furred backs exposed to the cold. As mentioned earlier the amount of mast present plays a role in determining when they den up.
Black bears are unlike brown bears when it comes to hibernating. There are arguments about whether black bears actually hibernate at all. The brown bears of the north enter their dens and spend at least 4-5 months in a deep sleep before emerging in the early spring. Black bears, on the other hand, will come out of their dens during warm periods in the winter. They usually don’t venture very far from their dens, but they will come out for short periods.
Black bears can go for 100 days without eating, drinking, urinating, defecating, or exercising. During this time their bodies are able to metabolize body wastes into usable products and they obtain the food they need from their fat reserves. Bears are also able to cut their metabolic rate in half. Their heartbeat can go from 40 to 50 beats per minute all the way down to 8 beats per minute while hibernating.
Black bears are also unlike brown bears in that they can easily awake from hibernation at any time. Black bear sows sleep lightly and are aware of anyone or anything approaching the den. Brown bears don’t awake at all. This adds to the argument of whether black bears actually hibernate or not.
While in the den, sows give birth to cubs in January and February. The blind cubs weigh less than a pound when they are born. As warmer weather and spring arrives, the bruins leave the comfort of their dens to forage on the green vegetation that is now abundant. Cubs stay with the sow the following winter and separate when they are 2 years old.
Black bears are fascinating animals and it’s no wonder it was chosen as our state animal here in West Virginia in 1954-55. Their populations have grown significantly since 1980, when 47 bears were killed by hunters, to the record harvest of 2,683 in 2012. Recently, black bear sightings have been reported in all 55 counties of West Virginia, as they roam this state far and wide and are here to stay.