Talk about your bad odds. In West Virginia last month 3,500 hunters took to the woods in hopes of slaying a black bear, the state symbol. They vied for a shot at one of about 400 animals left in the state and killed 46.
In 1976, the last year that Pennsyl-vania offered a one-day season for black bear, officials estimated that 225,000 hunters made the scene. That's almost a quarter million shooters, friends.They killed 604 bears that day, mowing the population down to about 2,000, and Pennsylvania said "enough."
The only place a bear balance seems to have been reached hereabouts is Virginia; an estimated 2,500 hunters chase about half that many bears and kill about 250 a year.
Is the black bear in trouble? West Virginia officials think it is in their state. Next year they intend to cut back on the season. But they dare not close it altogether, as Pennsylvania did.
Said Bill Goudy, who has been studying bears for the West Virginia Wildlife Resources Division. "If we close the season, the people that live in the bear range would set the bear population the way they wanted it (by poaching). And they'd leave us with none at all.
"We've worked hard to change the way the people look at bears. But with no hunting season, we would lose their tolerance."
Bears are antisocial beasts. They adapt less to human encroachment than most wildlife species. They gen-erally stay as far away from people as they can.
Which is probably why we still have some. Had they been easier to find, they might have been wiped out, like the buffalo, elk, wolf, panther and other so-called nuisance species.
In an article in Wonderful West Virginia, the state magazine, Goudy writes that from 1910 to 1950 "the bear was considered an outlaw, varmint, sheep-killer or a nuisance. Mostly, bears were a menace to rural residents' way of life. They were harassed and wantonly exterminated -- not killed for food or shot for the excitment of the hunt -- just slaughtered."
That changed some. In 1949. a legal season for bear hunting was established. But Goudy reports that poachers dominated, and it wasn't until 1963, when the bear was selected as the state's centennial symbol, that many paid much attention to its plight. By then, only about 500 bears remained in West Virginia.
Now another 100 have disappeared, and, in an effort to stem the decline. West Virginia next year will reduce the first half of its bear season from one week to two days. That early season in November is the traditional time for a big bear kill. Unfortunately, it's also the time that cub-producing females are most vuinerable.
Female bears reproduce every other year starting at age 3, and produce one to three cubs at a time. Says Goudy, "We're not getting enough female bears living long enough to produce young bears. They're dying faster than they're being born."
Game Division officials' answer to that dilemma was to propose a halt to the November season altogether, limiting bear hunting to December, when most cub-producing females already had retired to their dens for the winter.
But the Game Commission didn't buy it. Commissioners opted for a compromise, the two-day early season.
If all goes well, it could revive a steady bear population. On the other hand, West Virginia could run into the same problem that afflicted Penn-sylvania with its one-day season.
"It had a psychological effect on the hunters," said Dale Sheffer of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "A lot of them thought, 'Gee, I better get one now. There might not be any more.'" The total kill actually increased, despite the reduction in days.
Bears are the victims of modern life. The key factor is loss of habitat, because they don't adjust to human encoachment. Foresters cutting roads in deep wilderness can drive the bears out; development of housing and industry certainly does.
And hunting is becoming more effective. Hunters have easier access to deep forests, now that four-wheel drive vehicles are common. Hunting with CB radios increases their effectiveness.
A dangerous cycle is imperiling bears.
What motivates a hunter to pursue bear? Jack Raybourne, Virginia's bear specialist, says plenty of bear hunters are merely following a tradition they grew up with. Most hunters eat the meat; others go chiefly for the trophy head and pelt.
Also, there are some bad apples.
"A bear is supposed to be a ferocious beast. A guy gets a macho feeling from being in pursuit of one, with his dogs close at hand," Raybourne said.
Although countless hunters pursue bear for the sport of it and are concerned with the future of the species. Raybourne said, "We've got some individuals who, if they knew they were chasing the last bear in Virginia, there would be a fight over who got to shoot it."
In 1973, Virginia reduced its early season on bears with the idea of pro-tecting cub-producing females. It appears to have worked, and Raybourne feels the herd is stable now at 1,000 to 1,200 animals.
Pennsylvania has noted a sharp in crease since it closed its one-day season two years ago. The population has doubled to 4,000, and Sheffer said the season probably will be reopened next year. "Damage complaints from farmers are getting out of hand," he said.
Meanwhile West Virginia, the Bear State, keeps searching for the right combination.