Submitted by Paige Pearson, Public Information Officer, Va DWR
Wildlife biologists with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have compiled preliminary figures for the 2022-23 hunting season. Not unexpectedly, bear, deer, and fall turkey harvests all decreased from the previous season.
Hunters reported harvesting 2,232 bears during the 2022–23 bear hunting seasons in Virginia, some 25% lower than the harvest the previous year and 29% lower than the previous 5-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 3-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. 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.
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.
The 2022-23 deer harvest was down 8% from the last ten-year average of 200,351 and was likely impacted by above-average hard mast conditions across much of the state which generally lead 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).
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.