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Dismal Swamp bear hunt could expand

The price for bear hunting in the Great Dismal Swamp could drop this year if Refuge Manager Chris Lowie gets his way.

If history is any indication, however, the bears have little to fear, even if the lower fees have the desired effect of bringing in more hunters.

That’s because in four years of sanctioned two-day bear hunts within the swamp, the hunters have taken just one bear — and that one was an illegal kill, because the bear was smaller than allowed, Lowie said Thursday.

“It’s a tough place to hunt,” he explained. “We consider the conditions to be fairly rigorous.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began opening the swamp to bear hunters for two days each November back in 2006. Each year, a lottery is held, and 50 hunters’ names are randomly drawn. Each selected hunter is allowed to bring one guest along, for a total of 100 hunters. Those hunters are allowed to roam the refuge for two days in search of their prey.

The agency sets a 20-bear limit in order to protect the population, he said.

The program was started as a way “to provide a recreational opportunity in line with the purpose of the refuge,” Lowie said.

But the interest in the hunt has fallen off each year from the beginning, he added, noting that for the last couple of years the full complement of 100 hunters was not reached.

Since the hunt is recreational in nature and not designed to control the bear population, there has been no resulting increase in the refuge’s estimated bear population of about 300 animals, Lowie said.

Conversely, the refuge is open for 13 days during October and November for deer hunting, and there is no lottery system for hunters who wish to participate. Last year, the agency permitted more than 400 hunters, who killed about 80 deer, down from the normal take of about 135 animals, he said.

“It was real wet last year,” he explained. “It was real tough hunting.”

Hunters are allowed to drive along the refuge’s roads to get access to various parts of the swamp, and they can use car-top boats to cross the ditches, but they are not allowed to use any other motorized vehicles.

The bear hunts are especially hard, he said, because dogs are not allowed, and bear-baiting is prohibited. Also, for many of the hunters who are chosen in the lottery system, it is their first time hunting in the swamp.

In an effort to increase participation in the bear hunt this year, Lowie has proposed cutting the fee in half, to $25.

“Reducing the hunt fee to $25 is one strategy to increase hunter participation and improve the overall quality of the bear hunt program,” he said. “Another strategy will be to conduct a second lottery to backfill unsold permits.”

Interested hunters can apply for the hunt starting on July 1. A period of public comment on the proposal to cut the fee is in effect until May 8. Comments can be submitted by email to greatdismalswamp@fws.gov or mailed to Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, 3100 Desert Road, Suffolk, VA 23434.