Bear hunting

An annual effort, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) wildlife biologists have spent the last few months compiling harvest data on the Old Dominion’s big game—bear, deer, and turkey. This information helps provide biologists with insights to population sizes and overall hunter success, which will help them in making informed management decisions in the future. This year, the data reflects healthy and stable populations of these three popular game species.

Black Bear Harvest

The overall bear harvest during the 2018-19 season showed a slight decrease compared to the record-setting harvest in 2017-18, but was still the second highest harvest of black bears ever recorded in Virginia with 2,715 bears killed.

2018-19 was the second season of the new three-day early firearms season (which occurs before archery season) aimed at reducing human-bear interactions and overall population size west of the Blue Ridge.

This new season has been credited with the increase in harvest numbers over the past two years, but the impact it has made on the overall black bear population is still not evident, as there are natural variations in hunter harvest from year to year, due to hunter success and environmental factors. For instance, this year, western Virginia experienced spotty mast production, which often results in increased early season success and decreased late season success.

Of the overall harvest, hound hunters were responsible for the majority of the firearms harvest (72%) and youth/apprentice harvest (84%). However, interestingly, hunters not using dogs made up the majority of the harvest during the three-day early firearms season (60%). In total, 33,115 bear licenses were purchased, and successful non-resident hunters came from 25 different states.

Deer Harvest

During the deer hunting season that ended on January 5 (so, excluding the late urban archery seasons), hunters harvested 190,636 deer in Virginia, including 96,239 antlered bucks, 12,342 button bucks, and 82,055 does. This data shows a slight increase in harvest over last year’s numbers, but is still lower than the 15-year average.

Of the total harvest, 45% of the deer were taken during the muzzleloader season. 28% were taken during the archery season, and for the first time since crossbows became legal for all deer hunters in fall 2005, the number of deer taken with crossbows exceeded the number taken with traditional bows. Hunters harvested 63% of the total harvest during the general firearms season, and 51% of those deer were taken while hunting with dogs.

According to VDGIF Deer Project Coordinator, Matt Knox, a few factors could have affected a lower harvest in 2018-19 than in years past. First, much of the state was effected by high winds and rain during a few of the most popular deer hunting weekends. Also, the number of licensed deer hunters in Virginia is on a steady decline, a trend that he theorizes is partially related to the aging of the “baby boomers,” and their consequent withdrawal from hunting.

Fall Wild Turkey Harvest

Hunters harvested a total of 2,363 wild turkeys during the 2018-19 fall turkey season, a miniscule decrease of five birds from the 2017/18 harvest (2,368). East of the Blue Ridge, the data shows a slight (2%) in harvest. West of the Blue Ridge, the harvest increased 2%.

Fall turkey harvest has been relatively low since the turn of the century, despite the population being at record levels for modern times. The majority of this decline, according to Gary Norman, VDGIF Wild Turkey Project Leader, can be attributed to the long-term decline in fall turkey hunting interest and hunter effort. Moreover, the spring of 2018 experienced a record low in poult recruitment, and since 40-60% of the annual fall season harvest is comprised of juvenile birds, it makes sense that the 2018-19 harvest was found to be lower than in years past.

VDGIF continues to try to bolster interest in fall turkey hunting. Both the October youth fall turkey hunting weekend and the late January fall season were designed with this intention, but it is still too soon to say what effect they are having.

 Despite some decreases and negative harvest trends, hunters of the Commonwealth can rest easy. According to Dr. Gray Anderson, VDGIF Wildlife Division Chief, “The annual variation in harvest is normal and most populations are healthy and on-track with long-range management plan objectives.”

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