Colin Carpenter has every reason to think deer hunters are going to kill a lot of bears this year.
Carpenter, bear project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, sees the writing on the wall. Even before hunting seasons began this fall, he knew this might be a record-breaking year.
“Honestly, I think we’re on track for that record,” he said. “If the weather is good during the buck season, I think hunters will kill a lot of bears.”
Since the DNR began allowing properly licensed deer hunters to take bears during the November deer firearm season, the bear kill during that period has fluctuated between 400 and 600. Hunters bagged 499 last year.
“I would love to see 700 this year,” Carpenter said. “Hunters have killed a lot of bears already [during the archery and early firearm seasons], but I don’t think they’ve removed enough bears from the population to lower the [anticipated] harvest during the buck season.”
The size of the so-called “concurrent bear-buck harvest” will depend largely on two factors — weather and acorns.
“Weather dictates hunter participation in the buck season, and that extends to bears as well,” Carpenter said.
More than half the buck harvest takes place during the season’s first three days, when most of the hunters are in the woods. Bad weather during any of those first three days depresses the harvest, sometimes dramatically.
Especially good weather, on the other hand, can turn an ordinary harvest into an extraordinary one. In 2015, for example, hunters enjoyed near-perfect hunting conditions — clear and cold with calm winds. The buck harvest, which in previous years had hovered near 45,000, jumped to more than 60,000.
The other principal factor, the abundance or scarcity of acorns, affects bears in two ways.
When acorns are particularly scarce, bears sometimes hibernate early — especially if the weather turns cold and snowy.
This year’s acorn crop is spotty. According to the DNR’s annual Mast Survey and Hunting Outlook, white oak and scarlet oak are pretty scarce. Red and black oak are particularly abundant.
“In the southern part of the state, the red oak group did pretty well,” Carpenter said. “In some places, it’s downright heavy.”
In places where acorns are plentiful, Carpenter said he expects bears to put off hibernation in order to pack on a few more pounds.
“During the Thanksgiving week, pregnant sows tend to head to their dens,” he added. “In areas where there’s plenty of food, both the boars and the sows will stay out a little longer.”
The Nov. 23-Dec. 6 season will be open in 51 of the state’s 55 counties. Only Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming — four counties closed to firearm hunting during all deer seasons — will be closed.
Carpenter said he expects the bulk of the concurrent bear-buck kill to take place where it usually does: in Boone, Fayette, Kanawha and Raleigh counties.
“Traditionally, those counties have had a very strong bear harvest during the buck season,” he added. “In the mountain counties, most of the deer hunting takes place on private lands. Hunters there should buy bear stamps for their hunting license, just in case a bear comes along and they get an opportunity to take one.”
The same holds true, Carpenter said, for counties were bears aren’t considered to be as abundant.
“The western counties have only been open [to firearm bear hunting] for a few years,” he explained. “More and more counties every year are turning in kills, either during the bow season or the buck firearm season. Counties that haven’t been considered bear strongholds — Putnam, Jackson and Mason in particular — are turning in a lot more bears now.
“Right now, it’s questionable how many people in those counties buy bear stamps. I hope they get them, because you never know where a bear might show up.”
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.