Great hunting for big bucks continues in our state's four bowhunting-only counties -- but overall numbers are down. What's going on? (December 2006)
In 15 years as a conservation officer in southern West Virginia, Sergeant Terry Ballard has seen a disturbing decline in the region's trophy buck population.
"When I came to Logan County, you could hunt all day, and if you saw eight deer you'd had a pretty good day," Ballard said. "But of those eight deer, five of them would be bucks -- and three of them would be Pope and Young (P&Y) class bucks.
"Nowadays, you might see 20 or more deer in a day. But of those 20, probably only eight would be bucks, and only one of those would make the P&Y record book."
Ballard isn't the only one who sees the difference. Wildlife biologists are noticing it, too.
"The thing that's so upsetting is that it shouldn't be happening," said Gene Thorn, a biologist and manager of Wyoming County's R.D. Bailey Wildlife Management Area (WMA). "These counties are bowhunting only. There's no way you should have a decline in any deer population in a bow-only area."
Since 1979, four southern West Virginia counties have been closed to any sort of firearms hunting for deer. Since then, Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties have become "the" preferred bowhunting destination for archers throughout the state. The region has yielded eight state-record bucks since 1986.
Even last year, during a season most hunters considered sub-par, the four counties produced 26 bucks that qualified for the P&Y book of bowhunting records. The largest of them -- an 18-point non-typical taken in Mingo County -- was also the biggest whitetail killed in the Mountain State last year.
Sgt. Ballard knows all about that buck. He killed it.
"It was Nov. 9 of last year," he recalled. "I had dropped the kids off at school, so I didn't get to start hunting until 8:30 or so in the morning."
It didn't take Ballard long to find what he was looking for.
"I was walking up the hill to my tree stand," he said. "I looked off to my right and saw a nice buck. I couldn't tell how big he was, but I knew he was something I was interested in trying to take."
Ballard watched the buck come down the hill and drop into a small hollow about 30 yards away. "It was so thick in there I couldn't see him, though. I could hear him moving around, and he seemed to be angling back uphill. After a while, I couldn't hear him any longer and I figured he was gone."
Ballard pulled a doe-in-heat bleat can from his pocket
and flipped it over. No response. He grabbed his grunt tube and blew a couple of grunts, also to no avail.
"Then I grunted and turned the can over at the same time," he said. "Not more than two seconds later, I saw him coming down the hill toward me, winding through the trees."
The buck had his head down, and he came within 15 yards of Ballard's position before he stopped.
"He acted as if he never saw me," Ballard said. "He turned around and headed back toward the flat I had first spotted him on. When he came up out of the hollow the second time, I had a pretty good shot at him. I drew, but when I shot -- well, I don't know if he flinched or if I flinched, but I'd just about take bets that it was me. . . ."
Whichever was the case, the arrow was off its mark and the arrow hit the trophy buck too far back. Ballard's heart sank and rose as he watched the trophy of a lifetime flinch, take two steps -- and stop dead in his tracks.
"He took another couple of steps and I shot again, but I hit a tree about halfway between me and him," Ballard recalled. "He took a couple of more steps and stopped again, and I shot again. This time the arrow passed just barely over his back. He disappeared after that."
Jacked up on adrenaline but discouraged by his poor shooting, Ballard paused for a moment to gather his thoughts.
"I was just sick. I knew the only chance I had of getting that buck was if I had happened to hit the artery that runs down the back leg. The buck looked as if he was hurting, so I hoped that was what had happened. I decided to give him an hour before I started to trail him."
Thirty minutes later, Ballard could stand the suspense no longer. "I eased over to see if I could find a blood trail or evidence of a hit," he said. "I found a wide path of blood, so figured I'd hit that artery. I eased up the trail a little ways and then sat down again to give the deer some more time. This time, I gave him another 20 minutes."
Nervously, Ballard climbed up to the next flat and looked for the buck, but the flat was clear.
"Then I looked up the hill," he said. "I saw the buck walking away. He got out of sight, and it looked as if he had lain down, but from where I was standing I couldn't see exactly where. So I eased up to the flat I'd last seen him on, figuring he'd lain down there. I couldn't find him. I eased around the flat and looked up and down the hollow. I wondered where the heck he'd gone.
"I couldn't see down into the hollow that ran off to one side, so I eased over to the edge of the flat and looked down into it. The deer was 20 yards below me, bedded down, looking downhill. He'd covered his back trail, but he wasn't looking the right direction."
Ballard couldn't shoot because the only part of the buck that was visible was the back of his head.
"About five yards downhill, there was a big tree," Ballard recalled. "I figured if I could get there, I could get another arrow into the buck. I made it to the tree, and I could see him from there but still couldn't shoot. I needed another two steps to the right. I managed to take the two steps without spooking him, and I had a good shot at his chest and back. I aimed between his shoulder blades and let the arrow go."
To Ballard's surprise, when the arrow hit the buck's spine, it failed to penetrate.
"He jumped up like a new buck, and I watched him disappear out of sight," Ballard said. "I wondered if this was some sort of super deer or something."
Instead of waiting, the frustrated hunter decided to put pressure on the buck by pursuing it immediately. He walked to the place where he'd last seen the animal and found it bedded down again roughly 20 yards away.
n, he had his back to me," Ballard said. "The brush was too thick for a shot, and I couldn't sneak any closer, so I figured I'd just sit down and wait him out. After all, I had all day."
Five minutes later, the buck stood up. He tried to jump a nearby log, but fell back into his resting place and lay down again. Ballard continued his nervous vigil.
"After about five more minutes, he stood up again, and this time he went over that log like a trophy hurdler," Ballard said, shaking his head. "I wondered what the heck I was going to have to do to get this buck."
The buck moved uphill. Ballard followed close behind.
"He bedded down again, about 20 yards up the hill from me, but all I could see was his antlers. I started counting points, which I know you're not supposed to do, but I couldn't help myself at this point," Ballard recalled. "I realized he was a really nice buck."
A few minutes later, the buck stood up and started walking again. Ballard approached within 10 yards, but the buck spooked before he could get a shot.
"This time, though, he broke and ran downhill," Ballard said. "I knew he couldn't have much left in his tank, so I ran as fast as he ran. He lay down again after about 30 yards, and this time I was able to get an arrow into his lungs and finish him off."
Ballard had bowhunted the southern counties for 25 years, and he'd seen his share of big bucks. This was the first trophy-book buck he'd ever taken.
"I had a lot of opportunities, but I also had a lot of things go wrong," he said. "Finally, this one turned out right."
The buck dressed out at a whopping 175 pounds -- a big whitetail in West Virginia's southern counties, but an absolute monster anywhere else in the state. Its antlers feature a heavy 12-point frame with one broken tine, one small kicker point and a number of "ring-hanger" points around the base.
"All in all, it ended up having 18 points that were big enough to measure," Ballard said. "The biologist scored it as a non-typical. It scored 164 4/8. It was the first Pope and Young buck I'd ever taken, and if it's the last, I'll be a happy man. But I hope it won't be, because I'm going to keep on trying to get another one."
What are Ballard's chances of scoring another wallhanger? Not as good as they should be, biologist Thorne said.
"Biologically speaking, the deer population in these four counties shouldn't be declining. According to all the accepted biological models, deer populations managed for bowhunting only should continue to expand not decline. Yet the numbers show that our population is declining."
According to three sources -- the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources' (DNR) periodic spotlight survey, its annual bowhunter survey and its yearly deer-harvest figures -- the overall deer population in Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties has decreased each of the last two seasons.
Thorn believes coyotes, illegal poaching, free-roaming dogs, hunting regulations changes and mast shortages are some of the factors contributing to the problem.
"All those factors are additive," he explained. "Individually, they probably don't make a difference. Together, they result in enough deer mortality to reduce the population."
Hunters throughout the state have long believed that coyotes are wreaking havoc on whitetail numbers. While Thorn admits that coyotes are a problem, he said they're not the bogeymen they're considered to be.
"They're opportunists," he explained. "They'll take fawns when they can, and they'll take adults when they can. At the time of year when does are bearing fawns, the coyotes will be running the does. They'll get some of them, too. But I don't think coyotes are doing the damage that's being attributed to them."
A recent Pennsylvania study revealed that black bears kill as many deer as coyotes do. Southern West Virginia has a burgeoning bear population, but neither Thorn nor Ballard believes bears have been a major factor in recent whitetail losses.
"I don't think there are enough bears in the area to have that kind of impact," Ballard said. "If there were, you wouldn't see the number of does and smaller bucks that you do."
Instead, Ballard blames the decline on poaching.
"That's our big problem," he said. "When poachers take bucks, they take the big ones. Over the years of working in Logan and Mingo counties, we've easily confiscated 100 Pope and Young-class bucks. You know that's not one-tenth of what's been killed. The population just can't sustain that type of kill and continue to produce trophies at the rate it once did."
Though Thorn agrees that poaching -- a practice that dates back to the days when the area's coal miners routinely fed their families by taking deer out of season -- continues to be a region-wide problem, he dismisses the idea that it's the main culprit. "I don't know that the problem is any worse nowadays than it has been historically, but with the other factors added on, it's problem enough," he said.
Free-roaming dogs are also common in the four counties, where leash laws are nonexistent and fenced yards are few and far between. Thorn said the dogs' role in the deer herd's decline is probably greater now than it has been for quite some time.
"When deer populations are high, dogs don't have much success," he explained. "They'll trail a deer until they come across a hotter scent, then they'll take off after the hotter scent. When deer numbers are down like they are now, the chances of coming across a hotter scent are reduced. The dogs are able to stay on a single scent until they wear the deer down."
Thorn believes a recent change to the state's hunting regulations might also be contributing to the population loss.
"The provision that allows bowhunters to take an extra antlerless deer has created a shift in the number and sex of deer taken during the season," he said. "The kill used to be 85 percent bucks, 15 percent does. Now it's roughly 50-50."
With more does than normal being taken out of the herd, fewer are present for breeding. Again, Thorn said that the change by itself wouldn't be enough to make a significant difference, but when combined with the other factors it might be.
"All these things contribute to the end result," he said. "It's kind of a 'perfect storm' of circumstances."
The final factor in the equation -- and one over which biologists have absolutely no control -- is the area's annual mast crop.
"It wasn't too bad (in 2005), but the two years before that we had out-and-out mast failures," Thorn said. "You could hardly
find an acorn on the ground. When there wasn't enough food, does weren't as productive. Instead of having two fawns as usual, they might have had just one -- or none."
As of now, Thorn's theories about the decline are unproven. So far, DNR officials have been content to examine evidence of the problem without delving deeply into the root causes.
To fully understand what's going on, Thorn believes he and other biologists should conduct a deer-mortality survey similar to the one currently being conducted on turkey gobblers.
"It'd be nice to do, if we could come up with the money to do it," he said. "We really need to get a handle on what's going on down here."
That would suit hunters such as Ballard just fine.
"We have a great trophy resource in these counties," he said. "We need to find a way to keep it going."