By Dylan Cooper, columnist
Early deer and bear season are quickly approaching and yet something is already silently affecting them across the northwestern Virginia landscape. When you look at the maps of the expanded deer firearms seasons, the Chronic Wasting Disease cases in whitetails, and the black bear mange cases, you will notice all three have a central theme in common — things are certainly getting interesting in our part of Virginia and are spreading further south and east. Depending on your outlook and what you like to hunt, things might be getting worse or better… so let’s dive into the data.
I want to start out with an observational case of Shenandoah National Park, the “safe haven” which sits in the middle of this affected region. Everyone knows that SNP was the place to go to see big bucks and lots of deer up until maybe 5 to 10 years ago. Back then, access to private land bordering the park was like finding a pot of gold to us hunters. Riding around on Skyline Drive during the fall was certain to get you excited by seeing massive old bucks and just dozens of deer in general. But something changed a few years ago and all of a sudden it was sometimes hard to see a deer on the Drive. Was it the 2010 snowmageddon, the coyotes moving in over the last couple decades, the bear populations increasing, CWD (which hasn’t been officially reported in the park), or perhaps something else or a combination of those? There seems to only be anecdotal evidence left so at this point we can only speculate as to what happened.
Also based on observation, the bear numbers have also been on a roller coaster ride in SNP. The sightings of bears seemed to increase so much up until a few years ago, that it was then more common to see bears than deer when riding the Skyline Drive. But this year has been a different story. One friend of mine who works along the park roads and campsites said it took him until July to spot the first bear of the year, which was very unusual. Another friend of mine that works on the park’s trails said there has been a huge dropoff in bear sightings for him. Neither one has noticed any mange and said the few bears they’ve seen have looked healthy.
I now have several data points from the private land I hunt in nearby Fauquier County. Up until a couple years ago, bears were common for me to see a few times during hunting season and quite often in the summers on trail cameras especially near cornfields. Last summer, one trail camera captured a picture of the first case of mange I’d seen. This male black bear had over 50 percent of its hair missing with only some left on its head and legs. I reported it to a few DWR biologists and they said the bear should be left on the landscape (not dispatched or harvested) because “mange is endemic to the area and removing this bear will not likely result in lower spread or transmission.” This summer, it took until August to finally get a trail cam picture of a bear and boy, was it a horrific site. This poor fella has well over 90 percent of his hair missing including all from its head except its ears. His body is looking poor with how humped over he looks and his backbone and rib cage are exposed. This time, DWR told me the bear still had a chance to live as it could be on the tail end of the infection.
DWR’s black bear website states that, “Although mange can be a cause of mortality in Virginia black bears, there is currently no clear evidence that the disease is limiting bear populations in Virginia or in any other state, including areas where mange has been present for many years.” To me, the harvest data over the last several years seem to paint a different picture.
Mange in black bears was first reported in Virginia in 1994, and it became more common starting around 2014 in Frederick County. Around the 2017 season (also when the three-day, early bear season was implemented), the bear harvest data started to show a plateau or start of a decline for Augusta, Clarke, Frederick, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Page, and Rappahannock, with Frederick being the worst at a 19 percent decline when comparing the 2017-2019 harvests to the 2010-2016 harvest numbers.
As of the recent 2021-22 season, every single one out of the 12 northwest Virginia counties considered “Mange Positive” by DWR is experiencing a sharp decline in bear harvest totals. From 2018 to 2021, there has been an average of a 60-percent decrease in bear harvests across these 12 counties.
Page County is third worst of those at an 83-percent decline — where we had 77, 75, 54, and 13 bears harvested in the last four seasons respectively.
Now it should be said that hunter harvest isn’t the only piece of the puzzle when looking at populations. But when the state as a whole only saw a 1-percent decrease from the 5-year average, and 54 other counties are actually experiencing increases in bear harvest from 2018-2021, we can begin to tell things are more drastic in the valley and areas surrounding the SNP. Could it be that our bear hunters are already electing to shoot less bears because they see it as a conservation issue? Perhaps. I have heard from hound hunters recently that they will only take a treed bear if it’s someone’s first time, but most of the time, they pull the dogs off and let the bear go. And I have heard the number of tracks a bear dog picks up has drastically decreased.
For the bear harvest decline, DWR gives explanations of bad weather/mast crop, changes to regulations (such as when the three-day early season was established in 2017), and varying hunter participation. DWR goes on to state that “Lastly, notable drops in harvest in certain northwestern counties could be related to sarcoptic mange, a parasitic skin disease in bears. There is currently no evidence, in Virginia or elsewhere, that the disease limits bear populations over the long term; however, other states have observed cyclic outbreaks of mange that can impact local bear populations for several years.”
In comes the newly founded Virginia Chapter of the American Bear Foundation. They are a volunteer, membership-based conservation organization motivated to represent all bear hunters in the state, regardless of method or season, to support bear management and bear hunting for future generations. They recently donated $10,000 to DWR to fund a further in-depth study on mange in black bears (and have begun to assist in other capacities as well). They want to know its impacts to the population, the survivability, and the effects it has on bear movement, denning, etc. Once the problem is understood, hopefully a solution can then be found. So far, research here and in other states has shown that mange in wild populations is nearly untreatable because even if a bear gets medicated and recovers, it can just catch mange again after a while, as well as the chance that the mite become resistant.
A last word of caution about mange. It is caused by a mite, Sarcoptes scabiei, which can infect humans or other mammals that have direct contact with infected bears. Do NOT approach, feed, or attempt to medicate these diseased animals. To help prevent the spread, discontinue any supplemental feeding of bears or other wild animals and protect your garbage. The mite can live off of a host for up to 17 days. DWR asks “anyone who sees a bear showing signs of mange as described below to take photos, note your exact location (take GPS coordinates, if possible), and submit this information to the VA Wildlife Conflict Helpline at
[email protected] or (1-855-571-9003).”
Back on the deer side of the picture, things are potentially looking positive. I’ve never seen so many deer in this county as I have this summer. There hasn’t been a case of CWD detected in Page County (yet), but the sampling effort has been low (so please voluntarily get your deer sampled for CWD). But if you look at the rest of northwestern VA, every county has had at least one detection. I was told by one DWR staff member, that for Page County “it is only a matter of time, a short time.” Therefore, they want to get ahead of it by decreasing the deer density.
Because of the impending threat of CWD, we have seen big changes in the regulations to deer hunting in Page County for the upcoming season. We will now have seven months out of the year to deer hunt on private lands in Page County. What a drastic change from just a few years ago when we were all begging for another doe day or two. With Sunday hunting now allowed even on most public lands, this will also allow for increased harvest opportunities.
Perhaps we are seeing a cycle of nature between predator, prey, and disease play out right before our eyes. In my opinion, right now we are experiencing a decrease in predators and a boom in deer numbers (at least in our private lands) due to better fawn survival. If you’ve never looked into fawn mortality, start with the 2019-2020 study in nearby Bath County. Out of the 57 collared fawns in the study, 30 did not survive to 12 weeks. Nine died of natural causes, and of the 21 fawn predation events, the most were attributed “to black bears (16), with bobcats (3) and coyotes (1) being secondary contributors.” Also from that study, only one habitat factor was evident in predicting fawn mortality and that was elevation. With an increase in elevation, you have poorer soil, poorer habitat and food, and thus an increase in fawn mortality, because predators can hunt better in mature forests with open floors as compared to lush valley bottoms.
This is the phenomenon I feel we are seeing in Page County. It is really hard to find deer up in the National Forest anymore (that will be a topic for another time on the many factors at play). And I have been starting to hear similar anecdotes from those hunting the private mountain lands on the other side of the county near the Park. Yet you can now ride around down in the valley on any given summer evening and easily spot a dozen or more deer. It seems the private valley lands are seeing a peak in deer density like we haven’t seen in decades or perhaps ever. The deer harvest numbers show it too.
The last two seasons have had total deer harvests in the top 5 of all time for Page County. So that might make you feel comfortable now with the suddenly expanded deer harvest opportunities. But I want to warn you with a word of caution — don’t let your itchy trigger finger make this season the peak of deer hunting history in the county. If we all go out there blowing down lots of does, we will see a drastic shift again. It really depends on where you hunt if you think you should be taking extra does to manage the herd. Keep the buck to doe ratio where you hunt in mind, as well as the age structure.
Good luck and safe hunting.
Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.
Email: [email protected]