West Virginia'™s Changing Antlerless Seasons

Here's what you need to know about our state's ever-changing rules for antlerless deer hunting -- and the reasons behind these changes. (July 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

I have two summertime rituals regarding deer hunting. The first is I begin practicing with my compound the week after Independence Day. The second is I spend a half hour or so studying the West Virginia Hunting and Trapping Regulations summary for the upcoming season.

The reason for accomplishing the latter is so that I can begin contacting hunting buddies and landowners in various counties where I would like to go afield for the coming year. As long-time readers of this magazine know, I am not a trophy hunter. I do, however, avidly want to kill four or five whitetails (hopefully mature does, and with luck, maybe a decent buck) for the freezer.

The past several seasons West Virginia sportsmen have had to linger over the regulations pamphlet, as there have been many changes in the regulations. Some of these changes include a decrease in antlerless days during the various antlerless seasons, the buck-only firearm season, and the muzzleloader season in many counties.

Dick Hall, game management supervisor for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), explains the process.

"The state's deer management program is guided by a comprehensive planning process, which includes both strategic and operational components," he said. "The deer management program in West Virginia is generally well received, as it provides tremendous recreational opportunities and economic benefits to the state's citizens.

"The Division of Natural Resources manages the deer herd in individual counties using the buck kill per square mile as a population index and for setting management objectives. These management objectives are not equivalent to the biological carrying capacity of the land. Rather, these management objectives are a compromise between the number of deer wildlife biologists believe the land can support and other sociological factors (for example, the potential for crop damage and deer/vehicle collisions).

"Each county in the state is treated as a unique deer management unit. Therefore, there are 55 county management units located across the state with separate, but sometimes common, deer management objectives. County deer management objectives, expressed as buck kill per square mile are determined by a variety of parameters, such as the percentage of forest land, percentage of agricultural land, human population density, habitat quality, winter severity, physical condition of the deer, and socioeconomic factors."

Hall gives the situations in Randolph and Greenbrier counties as examples. The county buck harvest objective in Randolph County in 2005 was 3.5 bucks killed per square mile, and in Greenbrier County, it was four. The 2004 harvest was 1.77 bucks killed per square mile in Randolph County and 1.87 in Greenbrier County.

The DNR addresses the portion of Greenbrier County with a higher deer herd by splitting the county. The deer plan clearly shows, Hall said, that the appropriate management strategy in these counties was to close them to antlerless hunting in 2006. Of course, the DNR is aware that it is possible to increase a deer herd and still allow limited antlerless hunting.

When possible, the DNR uses limited antlerless deer permits to accomplish this. However, in West Virginia, landowners do not need an antlerless license to hunt, and in each of the above counties the projected landowner harvest would far exceed the number of antlerless deer that could be taken and still allow the herd to expand. In essence, the DNR liberalizes the antlerless season length and bag limit in counties exceeding the buck harvest objective. It restricts or eliminates the antlerless season length and bag limit in counties that are well below the buck harvest objective based on the two-week buck kill per square mile number.

"The muzzleloader season is a reflection on the type of antlerless deer season in a county," Hall continued. "If the county is open to antlerless deer hunting, then the muzzleloader season is either sex. If the county is closed to antlerless deer hunting, then the muzzleloader season is restricted to bucks only.

"Future goals for deer densities in these counties are reviewed at least every five years when the deer management plan is revised."

J.R. Hill, District VI wildlife management biologist for the DNR out of the Parkersburg office, told me that the agency has harvest data dating back to 1946. Biologists will peruse those years of records in order to make the best decisions they possibly can concerning the antlerless season and its regulations. As Hall noted, these recommendations go into the five-year plan.

Obviously, after all that data is analyzed, biologists will come up with recommendations for the archery, bucks-only, antlerless and muzzleloader seasons. If deer numbers appear to be down, the antlerless regulations will likely be more conservative; if numbers are on the upswing, the regs likely will be more liberal in terms of harvest allowance.

Of course, many factors besides the deer population in a given county can affect the harvest. For example, during one consecutive three-year stretch this decade, Hill said that mast production was poor. When such is the case, deer often congregate in fields more and the harvest rises. When mast is abundant, especially hard mast like acorns, the deer harvest can drop because deer are not as likely to frequent open areas.

In addition to the mast situation, other factors can affect the harvest. Hill related that poor weather during the two-week buck season could have a major impact on the kill tally. Traditionally, many West Virginians have taken off work on opening day or even the entire opening week. High winds or heavy rainfall on opening day or on the first Saturday can cause a number of hunters to remain at home, for instance.

Hill said that even the high gas prices of the past few years can have an impact. I know that I had second thoughts on visiting some counties in districts V and VI that are far away from southern West Virginia where I do much of my hunting.

Even the opportunity to shoot an antlerless deer or not to shoot one can affect hunting pressure. Hill states that many West Virginia sportsmen are very happy to target does, and I count myself in that group.

For example, this past season, a Greenbrier County landowner invited me to come to his land and hunt during the two-week buck season or muzzleloader season. The gentleman related that on a recent swing through his propert

y, he had spotted several bucks. I turned down his generous offer, saying that I wanted to go to some county where I would have the chance to kill an antlerless whitetail.

If a fairly large number of people go elsewhere, that factor can affect deer harvest and decrease hunting pressure on the bucks. Conversely, some state hunters are trophy oriented.

"A portion of our hunters are trophy hunters," Hill confirmed. "But these individuals are certainly not in the majority. The DNR tries to accommodate the desires and goals of as many hunters as possible. For example, we have set up wildlife management areas where we are trying to have older-age bucks."

Those older-aged deer management areas include Beech Fork Lake, Bluestone Lake, Burnsville Lake, the McClintic Wildlife Management Area and Coopers Rock State Forest. All antlered deer taken on these public lands must have a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches (ear tip to ear tip). The annual antlered bag limit is one for archery and firearm seasons combined. Check the hunting regulations for more information.

Hill added that people will have to be more careful on some public lands concerning whether they can take an antlerless deer or not. Paul Johansen, assistant chief in charge of game management for the DNR, told me there are, however, "a large number of WMAs open to antlerless deer hunting that hunters may wish to explore." Again, consult the hunting regulations.

One aspect that is indisputable is that the era of hunters being excited about record harvests taking place is over.

"The DNR is not trying to have record harvests year after year," Hill said. "The long-term goal is to have our state's deer herd in balance with the habitat. Currently, we are in a time when we are setting more conservative antlerless harvests for the first time in close to 20 years. We have harvest levels in each county. And the antlerless season is tied in to buck harvest as it rises or decreases.

"Of course, we get complaints about what we are trying to accomplish. But I think for the most part, the public supports what we are trying to do."

CHRONIC WASTING DISEASE UPDATE

In 2005, four examples of chronic wasting disease (CWD) were recorded in Hampshire County. During the 2006 hunting season, six additional deer were discovered to have the affliction in that county.

"As part of our agency's ongoing and intensive CWD surveillance effort, samples were collected from 1,355 hunter-harvested deer brought to game checking stations in Hampshire County," DNR Director Frank Jezioro said. "This most recent positive CWD sample was taken from a 2 1/2-year-old buck harvested during the firearms deer season, and the deer was located within close proximity to the nine positive cases previously detected in Hampshire County."

The breakdown of how those deer were discovered to have CWD is as follows: One was a road-killed deer; four deer were collected by the DNR in 2005, and four deer were collected in 2006; one was a hunter-harvested deer during the 2006 deer season.

"Our analysis of this CWD surveillance data indicates the disease appears to be found in a relatively small geographical area located near Slanesville, West Virginia," Jezioro continued. "From a wildlife disease management perspective, we consider this to be encouraging news. Based upon these CWD surveillance findings, we are taking the steps necessary to implement appropriate management actions designed to control the spread of this disease, prevent further introduction of the disease, and possibly eliminate the disease from the state."

The DNR has put into action the following within the affected area of Hampshire County.

'¢ Continue CWD surveillance efforts designed to determine the prevalence and distribution of the disease.

'¢ Lower deer population levels to reduce the risk of spreading the disease from deer to deer by implementing appropriate antlerless deer hunting regulations designed to increase hunter opportunity to harvest female deer.

'¢ Establish reasonable, responsible and appropriate deer carcass transport restrictions designed to lower the risk of moving the disease to other locations.

'¢ Establish reasonable, responsible and appropriate regulations relating to the feeding and baiting of deer within the affected area to reduce the risk of spreading the disease from deer to deer.

"Landowner and hunter cooperation throughout this entire CWD surveillance effort in Hampshire County has been just terrific," the director said. "As we strive to meet this wildlife disease challenge and implement appropriate management strategies, the support and involvement of landowners and hunters will continue to be essential. The DNR remains committed to keeping the public informed and involved in these wildlife disease management actions."

The DNR released a statement that details the serious nature of the affliction.

"CWD is a neurological disease found in deer and elk; it belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. The disease is thought to be caused by abnormal, proteinaceous particles called prions that slowly attack the brain of infected deer and elk, causing the animals to progressively become emaciated, display abnormal behavior and invariably results in the death of the infected animal. There is no known treatment for CWD, and it is fatal for the infected deer or elk. It is important to note that currently there is no evidence to suggest CWD poses a risk for humans or domestic animals."

And Director Jezioro emphasized the importance the DNR has placed on CWD.

"Our well-trained and professional wildlife biologists, wildlife managers and conservation officers are working diligently to fully implement the DNR's CWD-Incident Response Plan, which is designed to effectively address this wildlife disease threat," he said.

"Hunters, landowners and other members of the public should feel confident that we have some of the best wildlife biologists and veterinarians in the world, including those stationed at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Georgia, working collaboratively on this situation."

More information on CWD can be found at the DNR's Web site, www.wvdnr.gov, and the CWD Alliance Web site, www.cwd-info.org.

HOW HUNTERS CAN HELP MANAGE OUR DEER HERD

One of the best ways that hunters can help the DNR have a better quality, healthier deer herd is to kill more does in counties open to antlerless hunting. Even dedicated doe hunters like myself want to kill a trophy buck sometime in their sporting careers. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that harvesting does and antlerless

whitetails (that is, doe and buck fawns) is an essential part of herd management in much of the Mountain State.

For example, a good friend of mine recently told me about his experiences in the season just past. He had avidly hunted throughout the early bow season in October, patiently waiting for a big buck to wander by his tree stand. Day after day, my buddy passed up does, well over a dozen of them in fact.

When the rut kicked in and the bow season ended and the rifle season began, my acquaintance became ever more optimistic that the broad beam of his dreams would materialize. He saw even a greater number of does and more small bucks, though none sported racks sufficient enough for my friend to consider shooting them. So, it was that the gun season ended and the December part of the bow season began.

In early December after the gun season concluded, my friend began to see fewer does and fewer small bucks as well. But he kept waiting. His patience buoyed by the hope that a big buck would come by his stand. The dream was that a buck would come looking for that one last doe. This dream, too, faded away.

When the bow season had two weeks remaining, my friend called me and moaned that the deer had vanished. Even the does, it seems, had disappeared for whatever reason. There were no big bucks around, and even the spikes and forkhorns had gone to parts unknown.

After the season ended, I talked with my friend and found that he ended the season without harvesting a single deer. Indeed, the last week of the season he never even glimpsed a whitetail, let alone had the opportunity to shoot one. His wife was unhappy with him spending so much time in the woods and bringing home nothing for the table...as well she should be.

I am not at all criticizing my friend for being a trophy hunter. That is his decision. But all of us need to consider the need -- for the sake of the herd -- to harvest antlerless deer in counties where the DNR thinks doing so is for the betterment of the habitat and the animals themselves. Hunters can be, after all, the best-suited people for helping the DNR manage West Virginia's whitetails.

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