Virginia Harvest Figures Released for Bear, Deer and Turkey

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Wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) have compiled preliminary figures for bear, deer, and turkey harvests for the 2008-09 fall seasons. Notable results of the 2008-09 seasons include record black bear and white-tailed deer harvests. While the fall turkey harvest was down, clearly there is good hunting to be had in the Commonwealth.

Black Bear

A record number of 2,204 bears were harvested during the 2008-09 Virginia bear seasons. The figure represents the combined kill from archery, muzzleloader, and firearms. This year's record harvest was 35% higher than the previous record of 1,633 bears set in the 2006-07 bear seasons. The harvest in 2007-08 was 1,517 bears. West Virginia also had a record bear harvest this year.

Virginia's statewide bear harvest has been growing at an average annual rate of 9.5%, consistent with the Commonwealth's healthy and growing bear population.

In 2008-09, bears were harvested in 64 counties. Successful bear hunters came from 17 other states and one other country.

Spotty acorn production in 2008 also helped concentrate bears around available food sources, possibly making them more vulnerable to hunters.

The Virginia Black Bear Management Plan, a plan representing the bear-related interests and public values of all Virginians, includes objectives for desirable population levels of black bears across Virginia. Based on these objectives, the Virginia bear population has exceeded desired population levels in certain areas of the state including many of the counties that are in the top ten list of highest bear harvest. In order to meet the population objectives, certain areas will need future increases in bear harvest.

The muzzleloader season accounted for 95 bears or approximately 4% of the harvest. This was a decrease from the previous 5-year average of 7% of the harvest. The top five counties for muzzleloading hunting for bears were Page (25 bears), Madison (13), Rappahannock (10), Rockingham (7), and Shenandoah (6).

With a harvest of 517 bears during 2008-09, archery hunters accounted for 23% of the total harvest. This is similar to the previous 5-year average of 25%. The top five archery counties were Rockingham (52), Page (45), Augusta (27), Shenandoah (25), and Warren (22).

The 2008-09 firearms season accounted for 72% (1,592 bears) of the total harvest which is an increase over the previous 5-year average of 65% of the harvest. Similar to the 5-year average where hound hunters account for 35% of the total harvest and 50% of the total firearms kill, hound hunters harvested 34% of the total kill and 47% of firearms kill during 2008-09. The top five firearms counties were Rockingham (141), Alleghany (116) Highland (112), Bath (121), and Nelson (88).

The 2008-09 female bear harvest was over 40% of the total harvest, up from the 5-year average of 37%. The female proportion of the harvest increased for all segments of the bear season. Muzzleloaders had a female harvest of 46% (5-year average, 42%) and archers had a female harvest of 38% (5-year average, 37%). General firearms hunters who did not use hounds harvested over 45% females (5-year average, 39%), while hound hunters harvested only 34% females (5-year average, 32%).

White-tailed Deer

During the 2008-09 deer season, a total of 253,678 deer were harvested by hunters in Virginia. This new record represents a 4% increase from the 242,792 deer reported killed last year. The harvest is also 16% higher than the last 10 year average of 212,780 deer killed by hunters.

Across the state, deer kill levels were up in all regions including in the Northern Mountains (2% of the harvest), Northern Piedmont (3%), Southern Mountains (1%), Southern Piedmont (4%), and Tidewater (8%). This year's total included 111,863 antlered bucks, 22,291 button bucks, and 119,524 does (47.3% of the overall harvest).

Archers, not including crossbow hunters, killed 17,881 deer. The bow kill comprised 7% of the total deer kill. Crossbows resulted in a deer kill of 9,597 deer or 4% of the total deer kill. Muzzleloader hunters killed 57,038 deer. Muzzleloading comprised 22% of the total deer harvest.

More than 160,000 deer (63%) were checked using the Department's telephone and internet checking systems. This was up from 44% in 2004-05, 51% in 2005-06, 55% in 2006-07, and 59% in 2007-08.

White-tailed deer management in Virginia is based on the fact that deer herd density and deer herd health are best controlled by regulating does, or antlerless, deer harvest levels. Numerous season and regulation changes made over the past several years have been designed to increase the number of antlerless deer taken. These changes have been very successful. Female deer kill numbers have been at record levels for the past six years. For the past two deer seasons, the increase in the harvest has been nearly all antlerless deer. In 2008-09, the number of does harvested was up nearly 9% from 2007-08, and in 2007-08 it was up 13% from 2006-07. This trend is helping the Department move closer to goals set in its White-tailed Deer Management Plan.

To address areas where deer populations need further culling to meet management goals, an "Earn A Buck" regulation requiring deer hunters to kill antlerless deer was initiated in two areas in Virginia in fall 2008, with positive results. In four southwestern counties (Bedford, Franklin, Patrick, and Roanoke), Earn A Buck had a significant impact. The female deer kill in these four counties was 51% higher (3,700 deer) than what might have been expected without the program. In four northern Virginia counties (Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, and Prince William), the impact of Earn A Buck was less significant but did generate positive results. The female deer kill in these four northern Virginia counties was 9% higher (about 750 deer) than what might have been expected without Earn A Buck.

This data is preliminary and does not include deer taken during the late urban archery or special late antlerless-only deer seasons.

Fall Wild Turkey

Wildlife Division Director Robert Ellis reported that fall turkey hunters harvested 3,505 birds in the 2008-09 season. This was 26% below last year's reported kill (4,759 wild turkeys).

The harvest decreased 24% in counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains (1,576 vs. 2,077). Counties east of the Blue Ridge decreased 28% (1,929 vs. 2,682). Bedford led all counties with a harvest of 134 birds during the fall season. Caroline, Giles, and Augusta were new to the Top 10 county list of fall harvested birds while Amelia, Cumberland, and Floyd dropped out of the Top 10.

Small Game and Furbearer Program Manager Gary Norman indicated the harvest decline was a result of several factors including poor reproduction, good mast conditions, and fall season regulation changes.

Production has been poor in recent years. The Department examines feather samples from hunter-harvested birds to estimate reproductive success. Biologists examine the feathers to determine age and sex of harvested birds. Higher ratios of juveniles in the harvest suggest better reproduction. The ratio of juveniles per adult female in the 2008-09 fall harvest was 1.8. The long-term average is 3.1 juveniles per adult female.

To make matters worse, Virginia has experienced four poor reproductive seasons in a row, which has likely resulted in a declining turkey population in most counties. There are numerous factors that influence reproductive success, but weather is believed to be an important contributing factor.

The Department would like to thank those hunters and game check stations for providing these samples so reproduction can be monitored. These data help the Department gain a better understanding of turkey population trends and harvests.

Good mast (primarily acorns) also has a dramatic influence on fall turkey harvest rates. Generally, mast conditions were above average across most of the state this year. Wild turkey harvest rates decline when there is more food available to turkeys. With good mast conditions birds tend to spend more time in woodlands than open areas. Under these conditions, turkeys are typically more difficult for hunters to locate and hunt successfully. White oak is one of the wild turkey's most preferred foods. White oak production was particularly good this year in every region except the North Mountain Region. Red oaks are also an important food source for turkeys. Generally red oak production was near the long-term average across the state. Wildlife Division staff and Foresters with the Virginia Department of Forestry monitor acorn and other food crops annually across the state.

Finally, the Department adjusted the late segment of the fall season to reduce adult hen harvest in areas east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Previously as much as one-third of the adult female harvest in these eastern counties occurred during the last week of the season. Because adult females are largely responsible for population growth, biologists with the Department wanted to reduce mortality on these birds to grow turkey populations and harvests, primarily in the Piedmont region of the state. Turkey populations have declined to very low levels in many Piedmont counties and this concerns Department staff. This year, the harvest in counties with the 6-week fall season east of the Blue Ridge Mountains declined 32%, while the harvest only declined 13% in counties with a 4-week season and it actually increased 31% in counties with a 2-week season. Hopefully, the reduction in harvest in Piedmont region counties will result in higher survival of adult females which could stimulate population growth in this region.

Although the fall harvest was reduced this year, the proportion of birds harvested with a muzzleloader increased, particularly in counties west of the Blue Ridge where the early deer muzzleloader season was expanded to two weeks in length. This resulted in a one week overlap of early muzzleloader deer and fall turkey hunting seasons west of the Blue Ridge. This change resulted in a significant reallocation of turkey harvest west of the Blue Ridge from last year to this year. Of the 2007-08 harvest west of the Blue Ridge, 9% of the turkey harvest was reported by hunters using muzzleloaders. In 2008-09, the percentage of fall turkeys killed west of the Blue Ridge with a muzzleloader increased to 31% of the harvest. This reallocation of the turkey harvest may result in a reduction of "traditional" fall turkey hunting effort.

Forty-three percent of the fall harvest was reported in the first 2 weeks of the 6-week season. Ten percent of the harvest was reported on Thanksgiving Day. Twenty-six birds were checked on the fall youth hunting day.

Most birds were taken on private lands (89%) with the balance coming from federal (9%) or state-owned (2%) lands. Archers took 3% of the harvest in the early part of the archery season.

In summary, the fall turkey harvest decline was likely the result of a combination of factors including a string of poor reproductive seasons resulting in low population growth; good mast crops resulting in lower harvest rates; regulation changes aimed at protecting adult females in the Piedmont Region; and expanded muzzleloader seasons in areas west of the Blue Ridge which may have resulted in a shift of effort from turkeys to deer hunting.

For more information about Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, and Wild Turkeys, visit the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website at www.dgif.virginia.gov. The website also contains information about wildlife management, hunting regulations, and hunting opportunities within the Commonwealth.