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Early bear seasons are a big draw for southern W.Va. hunting

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Bear hunters from across West Virginia as well as several surrounding states have flocked to southern West Virginia for a unique hunting experience this week. The early bear hunting season runs this week in Mingo, Logan, Wyoming, and McDowell Counties, the “archery only” counties for whitetail deer in the southern West Virginia coalfields.

“When we split out the four extreme southern counties into their own season we saw a really good increase in the harvest,” said Colin Carpenter, Bear Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “It’s the only game in town when it comes to bear hunting.”

Originally the agency created the early seasons to help reduce the bear population in areas where not enough were begin taken during the regular hunting season. Originally the four counties were lumped in with the rest of southern West Virginia. Under the old format the harvest wasn’t enough to make the season effective. But the breakout to a solo season for the four counties early in the year seemed to be the combination which worked best.

“They’ve been very popular, especially for a lot of folks coming from states to the south like Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee,” he added.

The placement of the season over Labor Day weekend gave hunters an opportunity to get some time off to come to the coalfields to hunt. The early date also reduced the pressure of having hounds chasing bear through the steep and rugged hills during deer hunting season. It’s a month and a half until archery season, which is a ritual for trophy deer hunters in the coalfield counties where rifle hunting for deer is not allowed.

The early seasons were designed to help increase the harvest. Another early bear season is slated for October in Boone, Kanawha, Fayette, Raleigh, and Nicholas Counties. However, for the first time since the early seasons were created, there will be no early season in the “mountain counties”.

“What we’re seeing over time is our mountain county population, we have reduced it, which is why we’ve cut back on the seasons there. We got the population down to where we want it,” Carpenter explained.

Originally Nicholas County was considered one of those mountain counties, but data indicated unlike the rest of the high country, Nicholas County still has an over abundance of bears on the landscape. This year, they’re being added in with the other four for the early season.

Some lamented losing the early opportunity, but Carpenter explained in a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors, the season isn’t a recreational season. Instead, it’s a tool for management and one which is carefully monitored to guard against over harvest. However, unlike years ago when it took much longer for bears to rebound, their numbers are much more robust today. Therefore, the population will rebound quickly.

“It was never the plan to have it forever, it was a tool. The tool worked and now we’re taking it away, but we’ll bring it back when we need it again,” Carpenter said. “The thing that’s different now from 40 years ago is we have a lot more bears on the landscape, so the time it takes to rebound should be much faster than what it was when we had a population that was a quarter of what it is now.”

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