Out-of-season bear kills by Rappahannock farmers continues to be high
The 2016-17 fall/winter deer hunting season harvest in Rappahannock County was the lowest in almost 20 years — and the second lowest in more than 30 years, according to preliminary figures from the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.
A total harvest of 1584 deer was recorded this just-concluded hunting season, the lowest number since 1998 when 1476 deer were bagged. The fewest deer harvested before that in Rappahannock County were 1347 in 1986.
By comparison, 1823 deer were harvested during the 2015-16 hunting season; 1636 in 2014-15; and 2024 in 2013-14.
Also worth noting, the number of antlered males taken in Rappahannock County in 2016-17 — 659 — was the lowest harvest since 1985. Besides the antlered males, 102 male fawns and 823 females were bagged this past season in Rappahannock.
Meanwhile, 21 bears were taken by hunters in Rappahannock County during the 2016-17 season, although in 2016 prior to the opening of bear hunting season an additional 18 bears were shot by Rappahannock County farmers with so-called kill permits.
In 2013, 57 bears were shot and killed by Rappahannock County farmers before the hunting season — 28 of those 57 bears on one property.
A figure that “stood out” as “not near ideal” to Jaime Sajecki, bear project leader with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who said too often “no value is placed on these animals.”
Sajecki told the Rappahannock News in a telephone interview that the public and bear hunters alike tend not to be fans of “kill permits” granted to Virginia agriculture and livestock farmers, particularly when there are cases like in 2013 when a lone Rappahannock farmer killed 28 bears.
As a result, she said, the state is currently trying to figure out how to cut down on the number of bears killed by farmers, but in the meantime she suggested one “simple step” is to install electric fences if possible, particularly around orchards.
Sajecki pointed out that bears are “very food driven,” and in years when there is a “failure in their guaranteed food source, such as acorns and berries, bears will come from many miles away for food.”
“Bears are incredibly smart,” she said. “They’ve learned how to survive.”
The 21 bears taken in Rappahannock County this just-ended hunting season compares to 30 taken in 2015; 30 in 2014; 27 in 2013; and 28 in 2012.
Statewide, harvest numbers are up and down. The Virginia bear and turkey harvests showed a slight rise over the previous season while the deer harvest was down.
Said Dr. Gray Anderson, chief of wildlife for the state’s fish and game: “The annual variation in harvest is normal and most populations are healthy and on-track with long-range management plan objectives.”
According to his office, during the 2016-17 deer season, hunters killed 180,121 deer in Virginia. This total included 89,728 antlered bucks, 12,572 button bucks, and 77,821 does. The youth deer-hunting day in September, which was extended to the entire weekend, resulted in a kill of 2220 deer.
Archers, not including crossbow hunters, killed 14,977 deer, comprising 8 percent of the total deer kill. Crossbows accounted for 12,354 deer or 7 percent of the total deer kill. Muzzleloader hunters killed 47,947 deer or 27 percent.
Stable or declining deer kill trends over the past decade in Virginia were expected, but the ups and downs in recent years’ deer kill totals were in some part attributable to mast conditions and/or Hemorrhagic Disease outbreaks.
The game and inland fisheries department’s primary deer management effort over the past decade was to increase the female deer kill over much of the state, especially on private lands, to meet the deer population objectives of stabilizing or reducing deer populations as identified in the Department’s deer management plan.
The department’s deer management staff anticipated that these high and sustained female deer kill levels would eventually lead to a decrease in the statewide deer herd and stable to declining total deer kill numbers experienced over the past decade.
As for bears, a total of 2,428 bears were harvested in Virginia during the 2016-17 bear hunting seasons, a 3 percent increase over the 2015-16 harvest and just a few bears more than the highest harvest recorded in Virginia — 2014, when 2423 bears were taken. As Sajecki told this newspaper, a number of factors influence the annual bear harvest including weather, mast crops, and shifts in hunter effort and participation.
The 2016-17 hunting season was the second season with the new bear license requirement. In 2016, 30,868 resident bear licenses and 957 non-resident bear licenses were sold (119 more than 2015). Nonresident hunters from 30 states harvested 179 bears. Youth and apprentice hunters took advantage of a special weekend in October and harvested 77 bears. Approximately 67 percent of the total harvest was west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Finally, a total of 3,120 wild turkeys were harvested in Virginia during the 2016-17 fall turkey hunting season. While data suggest Virginia’s turkey population is close to record levels for modern times, acorn abundance, which varies by year and region, significantly impacts fall turkey hunter success rates.
In years with abundant acorns, wild turkey home ranges are small, making them harder for hunters to find. Conversely, without acorns, turkeys range further and hunter success rates increase.