The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

July 8, 2007

State’s black bear is thriving

CHARLESTON — A half a century ago, schoolchildren across West Virginia helped select the black bear as the state animal, despite the fact that there were only about 500 of the bruins statewide.

Now state officials say a change in attitude has helped the animal thrive in West Virginia and surrounding states. The rebound has been a boon to bear hunting enthusiasts as decades-old hunting restrictions put in place to protect the animal have recently been lifted.

The Division of Natural Resources says West Virginia’s black bear population now numbers about 12,000 and there have been sightings in all 55 counties.

“In the past ... it was considered a varmint and shot on sight,” said Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of game management. “That perception and attitude has changed dramatically. People view it now as a valuable resource.”

Not only is the black bear a symbol of West Virginia, after being officially named the state animal by the Legislature in 1973, it’s also seen as an important part of the ecosystem and an important game species, Johansen said.

The black bear, the only bear species in the eastern United States, is actually brown and grows to an average maximum weight of 250 pounds and a height of 4 to 7 feet. It roams freely throughout at least 36 states and Canada.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the population started to dwindle as forests were cut for timber or for agricultural purposes. By the 1950s and ’60s, there was concern for the bear’s survival and states started taking steps — such as imposing hunting restrictions and establishing protected parks and forests — to save the animals.

Several years ago, West Virginia pushed back its bear hunting season from November to December, which protected females because they were already in hibernation by then, Johansen said.

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