West Virginia's 2018 bear-hunting seasons weren't record-setting, but they were quite good.
Hunters bagged 2,606 bears - the sixth-highest total on record - during the combined archery and rifle seasons.
The total marked an 18 percent drop from the 2017 season, in which hunters killed 3,160 bears. Colin Carpenter, bear project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the fall-off closely paralleled a decline in the amount of food available to bears.
"[Overall] mast production in 2018 was 22 percent below mast production in 2017," he explained. "In addition, the mast index for oak species in 2018 was 24 percent below the long-term average."
Historically, poor mast crops affect hunting in two ways: Archery hunters do better than usual, and firearm hunters don't do as well.
That's exactly what happened last fall. Bowhunters killed 637 bears, a 4 percent rise from the 611 they killed in 2017. Firearm hunters killed 1,969, a 23 percent plunge from the 2,547 they bagged in 2017.
The firearm totals were lower from the get-go. The September-October early firearm totals fell 9 percent, from 623 to 565; the November "concurrent bear-buck" totals fell 21 percent, from 678 to 537; and the December firearm totals fell 31 percent, from 1,246 to 866.
The drop-off increased as the months passed, which makes sense. Acorns and other wild foodstuffs are naturally more abundant in early fall, before woodland critters have a chance to scarf them up.
Bears know when they're getting enough food to survive wintertime hibernation. If they aren't, they don't dally around looking for something that isn't there. Instead, they cut their losses and head off to their dens.
"A scarcity of mast [encouraged] earlier denning, and [made] fewer bears available for hunters during both the buck firearms and December bear firearms seasons," Carpenter said.
Significant as it was, the harvest decline could have been even more severe. White oak acorns were especially abundant last fall - 42 percent above the state's long-term average. Chestnut oak was 10 percent above average. If not for those two crops, bears probably would have gone to bed even sooner because red oak, black oak and scarlet oak production plunged 64 percent from 2017 levels.
And now, a few additional factoids and thoughts about the 2018 season:
n The "Mountaineer Heritage Season," a primitive-weapons season for deer and bear, produced exactly one bear. That's not surprising, considering that most bears were hibernating by the time the Jan. 10-13 hunt took place. What was surprising was where the bear was killed: in Preston County, one of the state's coldest.
n The top five firearm counties were Pocahontas, with 166 bears; Randolph, 143; Nicholas, 142; Pendleton, 126; and Webster, 125.
n The top five archery/crossbow counties were McDowell, 54; Wyoming, 49; Fayette, 34; Nicholas, 33; and Boone, 29.
n Crossbow-killed bears accounted for 41 percent of the archery harvest. That represents a drop from the 2017 season, when crossbows represented 44 percent of the kill.
n My, how times have changed! The average yearly bear kill during the 1970s, gun and bow combined, was just 67 animals. During the 1980s, the average rose to 180. In the 1990s, it reached 676. From 2000 to 2010, the average skyrocketed to 1,602. The average for the past nine years has been 2,709.