A wildlife camera captured a photo of a bear and cubs off of Interstate 64 near Charlottesville. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)
A wildlife camera captured a photo of a bear and cubs off of Interstate 64 near Charlottesville. (Photo courtesy of VDOT)

From numbers that had dwindled to around 1,000 at midcentury, Virginia’s black bears have been making a comeback. 

For the past few decades, thanks to reforestation and state management, the black bear has become more and more common in the commonwealth. And while population estimates aren’t an exact science, relying as they do on factors like hunting data and human-bear interactions, one Virginia wildlife official puts the current count at between 18,000 and 20,000. 

“Surveys show bears are very popular. Citizens like bears. They want to have bears,” said Nelson Lafon, the Forest Wildlife Program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. 

Ironically, one of the clearest indicators of just how many bears Virginia has is how many hunters have killed during the permitted season. And according to numbers released by DWR last week, 2020-21 was a very good season: with 3,464 black bears killed by hunters, it was the second-highest harvest the state has on record, following on the heels of only 2019-20. 

“We knew we had a healthy bear population, so why not let hunters enjoy the resource?” said Lafon. 

Black bears are Virginia’s largest land mammal, capable of living in the wild for 30 years or more and typically ranging from 175 to 400 pounds. (At times they can be larger: in 2000, a hunter killed a 740-pound behemoth in Suffolk.) The species has no natural predators but also doesn’t tend to reproduce at a particularly fast rate. 

In Virginia, then, the biggest driver of the species’ survival has been humans. For three centuries after Europeans first showed up on the East Coast, Virginia’s black bear population fell as a result of overhunting, deforestation due to agriculture, iron smelting and railroads and a blight that killed one of the species’ primary food sources, chestnuts. 

Circumstances took a turn in the 20th century. As farms with exhausted soils were abandoned, forestland returned. The national park system was created, leading to about 1.7 million acres of forested land in Virginia. And Virginia began instituting harvest controls like defined hunting seasons and restrictions on killing female bears responsible for continuance of the species. 

So successful have efforts been that starting in 2017, the Department of Wildlife Resources (then called the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) began changing regulations to try to reduce populations. In 2017, the department added a new hunting season in the western part of the state — what Lafon called the “strongholds of bear” in the state — and in 2019 it expanded firearm hunting of black bears in Southwest, Southside and portions of eastern Virginia. 

The higher-than-usual total of black bear kills isn’t just an indicator of a robust population, Lafon cautioned. “It’s also an indicator of increased opportunity,” he said. “You have to have people out there hunting.” Milder winters the past two years that have delayed bears from entering their dens has given hunters that opportunity. 

“We have a healthy bear population. It has been growing,” said Lafons. But “it’s too early to say whether these changes have started effecting a decrease in the places we want it to happen.” 

So where do the teeth come in? Remember that hunting numbers are one of the most important pieces of data the state uses to estimate populations. Beginning in 1991, part of that data collection required all hunters to report to special bear checking stations where a “small premolar tooth” was extracted for officials to determine how old each bear was. And while DWR rolled out an electronic checking system in 2019, hunters are still required to send in the tooth. Most do, said Lafon, with compliance hovering around 75 percent so far.

With more than 3,000 bears killed in each of the last two seasons, the teeth are mounting up. The agency has “boxes and boxes” of black bear teeth in its possession, said Lafon, and at least for the present, they’re here to stay.

“We’re not doing anything until we have to when we run out of space,” he said. 

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah covers environment and energy for the Mercury. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing. Most recently she covered environmental issues in Central Virginia for Chesapeake Bay Journal, and she has also written for the Progress-Index, the Caroline Progress, and multiple regional publications. In 2017, she was honored as one of Gatehouse’s Feature Writers of the Year, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards from the Virginia Press Association. She is a graduate of the College of William & Mary. Contact her at [email protected]