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The black bear is the state animal of West Virginia. It is a member of the family Ursidae americanus, which ranges from Alaska to Labrador to Florida and northern Mexico. Grizzlies and polar bears, the larger North American members of this family, are found far to our north and west.

Black bears are generally less than six feet long and stand two to three feet high at the shoulder. Adult males ordinarily weigh from 150 to 450 pounds, but some West Virginia records exceed 600 pounds. Adult females vary from 100 to 300 pounds, depending upon nutrition during their early years of rapid growth. Here in West Virginia, the blond and cinnamon color phases found in western states are absent. Our bears are uniformly black, with brown muzzles. About five percent to 10 percent have white markings on their brisket, varying from a few flecks to distinct V’s.

Before white settlement, bears were widespread throughout our region’s hardwood forests. The population was evidently quite large, though no accurate numbers are available. Biologists estimate that by the early 1970s, only about 500 were left, limited to about 10 counties. Since then, though, they have made a dramatic comeback and can be found statewide. Bears have been observed in practically all of West Virginia, but are most prevalent in a crescent of counties from Tucker through Greenbrier and Monroe and westward across Kanawha and Boone.

Hunting seasons are regulated by calculating bear population in relation to the amount of forest in a county, which is based on the number of bears killed by hunters in past seasons. Our most popular bear hunting season, which allows the use of hounds during December, is based on a minimum average take of one bear per 20 square miles of forest. This would translate roughly as a density of one bear per four or five square miles (approximately 3,000 acres) of forestland. There is a non-dog season as well, and a bow hunting season in October and November.

The current bear population of West Virginia is estimated at 13,000, an increase of more than 50 percent during the 21st century. Any total recorded mortalities of more than 1,000 indicate an expanding bear population. In 2022, West Virginia hunters harvested 1,727 black bears during the combined archery and firearms seasons. However, this was a 37 percent decrease from the previous year’s number of 2,756 killed. The 2022 season marked the lowest black bear harvest since 2006. The reasons for the decline are due to more restrictive management practices (trying to thin out numbers), a shortened 2022 hunting season, and poor mast conditions that forced bears into their dens earlier than usual. These numbers rebounded in 2023, with 2,555 black bears killed during the archery and firearm seasons, a 79 percent increase from the previous year.

This Article was written by Joseph C. Rieffenberger

Last Revised on January 18, 2024


Cite This Article

Rieffenberger, Joseph C. "Black Bear." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 January 2024. Web. 23 April 2024.

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