Bear, Deer and Turkey Harvests Decline Last Season

by Chris McCotter

Wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have compiled preliminary figures for the 2022–2023 hunting season. Not unexpectedly, bear, deer, and fall turkey harvests all decreased from the previous season. 

   According to Dr. Gray Anderson, Wildlife Division Chief, “In addition to recent hunting seasons designed to reduce populations in some areas, harvest decreases observed this past season could be related to several factors outside of managers’ control: hunter participation, weather, and particularly, food conditions. This past fall saw an abundant acorn crop that was widespread across much of the state, likely leading game to move less in search of food and making them less visible and vulnerable to hunters.” 

  Harvest reporting by successful bear, deer, and turkey hunters is an important component of DWR’s management programs as harvest data are used to monitor game populations and inform future regulatory decisions.

Where Are The Bear? 

  Hunters reported harvesting 2,232 bears during the 2022–23 bear hunting seasons in Virginia. The 2022–23 bear harvest was approximately 25% lower than the harvest the previous year and 29% lower than the previous five-year average during 2017–2021. A lower proportion of the 2022–23 season harvest consisted of female bears (41%) than the previous year (44%). Significant harvest decreases during the three-day early firearms season (36%), the archery season (24%), and the muzzleloader season (55%) were the main contributors to the overall decline in the 2022–23 statewide bear harvest. The youth/apprentice weekend harvest decreased by 10% and the firearms season decreased by 17% from the 2021–22 season.

  The bear harvest during the 2022–23 season decreased in both western (30%) and eastern (19%) Virginia compared to the previous season. This decline is the result of several factors. 

  Although the magnitude varied regionally, a decline in bear harvest was observed across all regions of the state, suggesting the influence of a common factor. 

  Acorn abundance during the fall of 2022 was above average across Virginia, and abundant acorn crops enable bears to move less in search of food, thus reducing their vulnerability to hunters. 

  As the Department’s harvest data demonstrates through the past several decades, and again this past season, abundant acorn crops typically result in significant harvest declines during the archery and muzzleloader seasons.    

  In addition, recent firearms season expansions (2017 and 2019) as well as the three-day early firearms season (established during 2017) were designed to reduce bear populations, especially in western Virginia. As bear populations decline, harvests are expected to decline within subsequent years, so the larger declines in bear harvest in western Virginia were not unexpected. 

  Lastly, the magnitude of harvest declines in the northwestern counties could be related to sarcoptic mange, a 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 bear populations locally for several years. 

  The 2022–23 season was the second during which hunters could only report their bear harvest through the DWR electronic harvest reporting systems using phone, internet, or mobile applications, and the fourth year during which successful bear hunters could report their harvest electronically.  

  The majority (61%) of hunters reported their bear harvest using the mobile application, 28% called in their harvest by phone, and 11% reported their harvest using the internet. The quality of harvest data received during the last three seasons indicate that the electronic reporting system is an effective method of data collection, including submission of teeth for aging bears.

  Across all seasons when hounds could be used, an estimated 54% of bears were taken by hunters using hounds during 2022-23. Preliminary season estimates for the proportion of bears harvested by hunters using hounds were as follows: three-day early firearms season (56%), firearms season (76%), and youth/apprentice weekend (79%).

Tracking Turkey

  A total of 1,621 wild turkeys were harvested in Virginia during the 2022–23 fall turkey hunting season, a slight decrease over the 2021-22 harvest of 1,644.

  While Virginia’s turkey population appears to remain robust, fall harvests will fluctuate due to a number of other factors beyond the population size. These factors, which vary across the state, include the length and timing of the fall season, annual variation in reproductive success, acorn abundance, hunting pressure, and weather.

  Reproductive success can vary widely; inclement weather in May and June can lead to nest losses or death of the young turkey poults. In 2022, the productivity estimate (1.9 poults/hen) was below the long-term average (2.6 poults/hen) for Virginia. Since juvenile birds account for 40-60% of the fall harvest, reproductive success greatly influences turkey population size and subsequently fall harvest.

  Acorn abundance also has a significant impact on fall harvest rates. In years with abundant acorns, like 2022, wild turkey home ranges are small, which makes them harder for hunters to find. They also tend to spend more time in the woods foraging rather than in open habitats where they would be susceptible to harvest. As a result, harvest rates often decline when mast is abundant. On the other hand, during years of acorn scarcity turkeys must range further to find food and this typically helps hunters find and harvest more birds.

  Like the 2021–22 season, the archery harvest (bows and crossbows combined) remained relatively high, making up approximately 22% of the overall harvest. Thanksgiving Day and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving continue to be popular fall turkey hunting days. This year a total of 368 birds were harvested during that two-day timeframe, accounting for nearly 23% of the total fall harvest. Thanksgiving Day accounted for the single highest day of harvest with 232 birds or 14% of the total fall harvest.

  The decline in fall turkey hunting participation has been an ongoing issue for Virginia and many other eastern states. One of the goals of the DWR Wild Turkey Management Plan is to reverse the general decline in fall turkey hunting interest. The October youth and apprentice fall turkey hunting weekend and the late January fall season were designed to encourage interest in fall turkey hunting. Unfortunately, it appears the declining trend is continuing despite these efforts. Many hunters have shifted to hunting other species and many have decided to hold onto their turkey tags to utilize during the spring season. While fall turkey participation may be lagging, the excitement of those who do participate is not.

Deer Season Harvest Drop

  During the 2022–23 deer hunting season, hunters harvested 184,968 deer in Virginia, down approximately 3% from the 190,582 deer taken during the same time frame the previous season. This year’s total included 90,242 antlered bucks, 1,113 bucks that had shed their antlers, 11,921 button bucks, and 81,692 does (44%).

  The youth and apprentice deer-hunting weekend resulted in a harvest of 2,358 deer. Archery hunters took 16% of the total deer harvest while muzzleloading deer hunters and firearms hunters took 24% and 60% of the total harvest, respectively. This is the second season that all deer were reported using the Department’s electronic harvest reporting systems (telephone, online, and mobile app).

  The 2022–23 deer harvest, down 8% from the last ten-year average of 200,351, was likely impacted by above average hard mast conditions across much of the state which generally leads to decreased deer movements and lower harvests. Weather during the 2022-23 deer season was also highly variable with unseasonably warm temperatures or precipitation falling on the opening day of multiple seasons (archery and muzzleloader). Over much of the state, the Department has continued its efforts to reduce deer populations which, when successful, would also result in reduced fall deer harvest numbers.

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