What's in Store for Mountain State Sportsmen?

Here's the latest, right from the top, on what hunters can expect this season for deer, bears, turkeys and more! Will good hunting continue in your neck of the woods? (July 2006)

Photo by John R. Ford

Curtis Taylor serves as chief of the Wildlife Resources Section for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR). Recently, he sat down with long-time West Virginia Game & Fish correspondent John McCoy to discuss the status of the state's hunting seasons.

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Game & Fish: Let's talk about deer first. The numbers have come in, and the statewide buck kill is down to just 64,547. Hunters are starting to get unhappy. What do you say to them?

Curtis Taylor: We go back to the deer management plan. It's based on county units. We had some counties where we were actively trying to reduce deer population. We achieved that. We're sticking to our plan. As we speak, our guys are looking at tags, looking at data. From that, they'll determine their proposals for the 2006 buck and antlerless-deer seasons.

We still have some counties that are above the harvest objectives, where there are still too many deer. We're going to continue with aggressive seasons in those counties. Conversely, there are other counties where deer numbers are down so far that we're going to have to be very restrictive, particularly on our antlerless-deer harvests.

Having said that, the deer population in the state will never go back to support the buck kills of 100,000 that we had in the mid-1990s. It's not good for the deer; it's not good for the habitat, and it's not good for the other species of wildlife that share the forest with deer. We're trying to strike a balance in what the habitat can support, what people can live with, and what we need to have to keep our hunting heritage alive.

G&F: When the deer-kill pendulum swings toward a happy medium, as I presume you fellows are trying to have it do, what sort of buck harvests and doe harvests would we be looking at?

Taylor: I think, more than come up with a finite number, we would like to get to a point where we're harvesting as many does as bucks throughout the entire season. That will allow us to even up the buck-to-doe ratio, which hunters seem to want. At the same time, there's a clamoring out there for bigger bucks.

G&F: You guys are working on that right now. Let's talk about it a little bit. DNR Director Frank Jezioro has asked you to look into the possibility of older-aged deer management on some public hunting lands. What's the status of that?

Taylor: It's ongoing -- actually more than ongoing. We started last deer season in some areas trying to collect some baseline data. We wanted to go out and look at animal weights, beam diameters, spreads, number of points, etc., so we would have a yardstick to go by when we propose our management guidelines for those areas. That way, we can look at those same things a few years down the road to see if our management plan made any difference.

G&F: What are the general parameters Director Jezioro is pushing for?

Taylor: The goal is to have one or two sizable older-age deer-management tracts in each of the state's six wildlife management regions. He's asked for areas of about 10,000 acres. That's a goal we might not be able to make in every district, but we think we'll be able to provide at least one within reasonable driving distance of every hunter in the state.

What the director wants to do is to provide different types of hunting experiences for different types of hunters. There are still people out there who just want to kill a deer. They couldn't care less whether it's an 8-point or a 10-point. Others want to kill only trophy deer. We want to have something for everyone.

G&F: Is West Virginia diverse enough in habitat and deer herd size to justify this sort of approach?

Taylor: Oh, I think so. The state really is diverse enough in its habitat that we can do a lot of different things. For example, we could put all the antler restrictions we wanted in the Eastern Panhandle, but with the lack of soil fertility there, you'd never get the sort of racks you have in Wyoming or McDowell counties, or along the Ohio River.

G&F: We've now had a period of big deer harvests, and we've had a period of substantially lower deer harvests. Have we reached a point in deer-management evolution where we're going to swing back to the middle somewhere?

Taylor: I wouldn't characterize it as a swing. We're actually trying to minimize swings. We have harvest objectives that vary by county. We want to achieve those and stay close to them, without moving too much one way or the other.

G&F: One initiative Director Jezioro wants to look at is the possibility of managed deer hunts on state parks. What's the rationale behind that?

Taylor: Actually, we in Wildlife Resources have advocated that for some time, at least on selected parks. We saw that it could work a few years ago, when we held a hunt on Blennerhassett Island. They had a real problem there, with way too many deer damaging the park as a whole. Deer numbers simply had to be reduced. We tried a hunt, and it was highly successful. Now the parks folks would like to expand that to other parks.

Nothing is set in stone yet by any means -- whether to hunt exclusively from tree stands, what kinds of weapons to allow. All of that is yet to be decided. But we're working on it.

G&F: Do you think there's legislative support for it?

Taylor: I think so. People who are knowledgeable about deer take trips to state parks. They see the small deer sizes, low body weights and poor conditions, and they can see there are deer overpopulation problems.

G&F: Let's move over to bears. That's probably the bright spot on the wildlife scene right now.

Taylor: Well, I don't think deer are a dark spot. A lot of state wildlife agencies have thrown their hands up at controlling deer numbers. They can't. We've shown that the plan we've put together is a workable plan. We can affect deer numbers out there. That's a pretty significant thing.

G&F: There's no question that it's biologically acceptable. But is it sociologically acceptable?

Taylor: If you didn't kill a deer, it's probably not acceptable. But we're looking long term, at managing deer for future generations. I hope that the next genera

tion of hunters doesn't have to do what I did -- which was to sit on a rock in Hardy County one morning, count 80 deer and not be able to shoot a single one of them. None of them were bucks, and none of them weighed more than 65 pounds. Anyway, on to bears . . .

G&F: What's the status of the bear population nowadays? Have we hit the magic 14,000 figure yet?

Taylor: Some of us think we've surpassed that number. I was talking about this with Chris Ryan, our bear biologist, just the other day. He's huddled in his office, going over harvest figures, coming up with recommendations to manage the growing population.

There's a chance we might be looking at some additional seasons down the road, probably sooner than later.

We're learning more and more about our bear populations every year, especially about bears in the southern part of the state.

G&F: Can the population be allowed to continue to expand at the rate it's been expanding?

Taylor: We've already answered that question, because we've designed more liberal seasons for southern West Virginia to try to slow the population growth. We're very aware of the socio-ecological question: "How many bears are people willing to live with?"

G&F: But that begs another question: How many are people willing to kill?

Taylor: I don't think we've even come close to the number of potential bear hunters we could have. We've made opportunities for bowhunters, for people who don't own dogs, for people who do own dogs, and opportunities for people who are deer hunting and happen to see a bear come along. That's another one of those something-for-everybody scenarios.

G&F: Where do you go from here, though?

Taylor: Where you go from here is to determine whether there are counties where the bear population actually needs to be reduced. If you'll remember, years and years ago, biologist Joe Rieffenberger did landmark work on the effect the timing of the firearms season had on bear hunting.

G&F: That was in 1978. You began starting the season one week later, and that triggered a bear population boom that continues to this day. Would you be looking at moving the season back a week to reverse the current population trend?

Taylor: I think what we'd look at first is an earlier opening, a limited number of days for our dog hunters, because they're the most effective at killing bears.

G&F: That way, you catch the sows before they have a chance to den up.

Taylor: Right. But in years like the one we just had, when we had ample mast, there weren't many sows that denned up early. The harvest rate on tagged bears wasn't very high. And when you get outside the traditional bear range, there are some areas of the state that can't be effectively hunted with dogs. It's just physically impossible.

G&F: Sure. In southern West Virginia, there are just too many roads. Not many guys are willing to turn Old Blue loose and have him end up as a coal truck's hood ornament.

Taylor: There have been issues, not only with mine roads, but also with the West Virginia Turnpike. People have lost dogs there. But at the same time, there's a decent amount of bear hunting with dogs taking place in the southern counties. Not as much as we want, maybe, but a decent amount.

G&F: Is there a chance that we might eventually go to a spring bait season for bears?

Taylor: We're not looking at a spring bait season. That's not on the table right now.

G&F: Let's talk about your favorite critter, the wild turkey. The brood year was good, the spring harvest was poor, and the fall harvest was dismal. In your estimation, what's the status of the wild turkey in West Virginia?

Taylor: We're coming off the worst turkey conditions you could possibly imagine. We had very poor mast several years in a row. Except for last spring, we had several bad years of horrendous weather for turkey poult production.

Turkeys aren't like deer. It takes them longer to rebound from population declines. Our research has showed us that.

We had a good hatch in 2005. In 2006, we'll have more juvenile hens out there. But they won't add much to the population. To do that, they have to be 2 years old. So we're looking at a lag time before things get any better.

I think we've probably peaked in terms of turkey numbers in West Virginia. We probably won't return to the numbers we had in the early 1990s. We've lost habitat. A lot of logging is going on right now, and we don't know what its full impact on the turkey population might be. There's no doubt that if we don't get that oak component back in our forests, turkeys are going to suffer.

G&F: Don't small clearcuts provide the sort of "edge habitat" young turkeys need?

Taylor: They do. But the driving force behind turkeys in West Virginia is the presence of acorns. You need mature oak forests to provide that. I'm not saying that timber harvesting is necessarily bad for turkeys. If done properly, it can be a boon. But there's an awful lot of cutting going on right now.

G&F: What about the fall turkey harvest? It was just 1,295 last year. Have hunters just forgotten about that season?

Taylor: I don't think there's much interest in it anymore. At one time, we actually had a tradition as a fall hunting state. In fact, we struggled through the 1970s to try to regulate the fall harvest when it was concurrent with all the other small-game seasons. We had a 12-week turkey season that was confined to a few counties. We really hammered the birds back then.

Slowly, we got that changed. Through the trap-and-transplant program, we got turkeys established in all 55 counties. Hunters became accustomed to hunting during the spring season.

I hunted in Summers County this fall. Frankly, I felt like I was the only hunter in the woods! I'm not complaining about that, but it simply doesn't appear that we have the same number of fall turkey hunters we once had.

G&F: Is there a chance we're overexploiting our spring turkey resource with the two-bird limit we now have?

Taylor: That's the main reason we instituted our gobbler population dynamics study -- to figure out if we're killing too high a percentage of our males. So far, we only have one year's worth of data under our belts. It's a five-year study.

We're going to do what the study results tell us to do, just like we did with the hen study we did in the 1990s. It told us we could offer some additional fall hunting for hens, and we did.

We'll wait till we get all the data and we'll make a decision. If we have to adjust the bag limit or the season length, we will. Frankly, I think there's a chance we might need to make some changes.

G&F: Let's take a look at the big picture. Occasionally, at a public meeting, you'll hear someone say they believe hunting was better 20 or 30 years ago. How would you respond to that?

Taylor: I was hunting back then, and I'd have to say absolutely not. I was on a deer hunt a couple of weeks ago with a guy a little bit older than me, and he said we're living in the best of times -- that we've seen increases in deer and bear and turkeys to the point where we need to do something about the populations to keep them from getting much bigger. I agree with what he said. In fact, I think we're in for even better hunting in the future.

G&F: Really? How so?

Taylor: I think we're going to see some habitat changes that will benefit grouse. On our wildlife management areas, we're looking at some timber harvests that are geared toward improving habitat. Director Jezioro has said in no uncertain terms we need to work on improving small-game hunting. It's something we need to do.

G&F: Are there enough small-game hunters left to take advantage of that?

Taylor: I think so. It's one of those "if you build it, they will come," deals. I think there are a lot of people who will take up grouse hunting and rabbit hunting if we provide the resource for them.

G&F: What about seasons and programs to encourage young people to hunt? Are those going to continue?

Taylor: Absolutely. I think it's vitally important to involve young people in hunting as early as you can. They have a wide range of things that can steal their time. We need to get them involved in the outdoors at as young an age as possible.

In West Virginia, families still are kind of linked to the outdoors. They link their children to the outdoors. In that respect, we're very blessed, and our outlook is very good.

G&F: Thank you.

Find more about West Virginia fishing and hunting at: WVgameandfish.com

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