Status Of Our State's Wildlife In 2008

Status Of Our State's Wildlife In 2008

How will hunting for deer, bears, turkeys and other game species pan out this year? This candid interview with the man in charge of wildlife management in our state will clue you in. (July 2008)

Curtis Taylor with a gobbler he bagged during a recent spring hunt. Good brood success the last couple of years should bode well for hunters next season.
Photo by John McCoy.

Editor's Note: Every year, West Virginia Game & Fish sits down with a leading West Virginia wildlife official to determine the state of the state's hunting resources. For this year's interview, outdoors writer John McCoy, of the Charleston Gazette, conducted a lengthy interview with Curtis Taylor, Wildlife Section chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR).

* * *

Game & Fish: No thorough discussion of West Virginia's wildlife could take place without talking about deer, so why don't we start there?

Taylor: Absolutely. That's the thing everyone wants to know about. We enjoyed an increase in our deer harvest last year; our hunters killed 145,577 deer, which was 6 percent more than they killed the previous year.

G&F: Why such an increase from one year to the other?

Taylor: I think the deer-management plan we've implemented is working; we're sticking pretty close to that. There are areas of the state where we propose to be liberal with our hunting seasons, and there are areas where we propose to be more conservative.

G&F: What do you base your management goals on?

Taylor: We base the management plan for each county on the number of deer, the environmental conditions and the sociological conditions that are present in that county.

G&F: So what are the numbers telling you? Are we looking at dramatic increases in the number of available deer anytime soon?

Taylor: I would say no. We've said for years that we had allowed the deer population to get too big in a lot of places, and we've made a concerted effort to bring that population down where it ought to be. The level we have now is not only good for the deer, it's also good for deer hunters.

G&F: Explain that, please.

Taylor: We've started to manage a few large wildlife management areas (WMAs) specifically for older-aged deer. We're tracking the harvest data on them to see if it's having the impact we anticipated, or if it's not.

G&F: What if it's successful? Are we going to see a move toward regulations that require deer to have a certain rack size before they're legal?

Taylor: No. We don't want to do what's been done in other states and require that every buck killed must have at least a 14-inch spread. We have all kinds of deer hunters out there. Yes, there are guys who hunt exclusively for trophy bucks; they're after those 8- to 10-pointers with the 14-inch-plus spreads. But we also have folks who just want to kill a buck. Heck, we have folks who just want to kill a deer. So, we're trying to satisfy a wide array of hunters. I think that with our private lands, our WMAs and our national forests, we have a place for everyone to go. I think that's one of the reasons we attract so many non-resident hunters. We have a lot of opportunity. We have 1.5 million acres in this state that you don't have to ask permission to hunt on. You can just buy a license and go.

G&F: I'm hearing from DNR antler-scorers that hunters killed a lot of trophy bucks in 2007. What are you hearing?

Taylor: I've heard the same thing.

G&F: What do you attribute that to?

Taylor: I think we had a fair number of carryover bucks from the preceding season, and that showed up in the gun harvest.

G&F: But why the increase in the archery counties?

Taylor: I think you can track that back to the mast conditions. Mast was spotty last year; deer were on the move more. Yet, we had enough mast to power a pretty good rut. I think those things contributed to a harvest of bigger, older-aged deer.

G&F: One thing that really surprised me was the sheer number of deer killed in the bow-only counties this year, particularly Wyoming and McDowell counties.

Taylor: Absolutely. McDowell and Wyoming were in the top 10 (producers). So, the argument can no longer be made that there are no deer in those counties. When you kill 1,000 deer with bow alone, you have a fair number of deer available to hunters.

G&F: That begs a question. Are those counties getting too many deer to maintain the big bucks people are used to seeing?

Taylor: We don't want to see the quality of those bucks go down, and we don't want to see 60 deer per square mile. We know from history that even though the habitat down in those counties is very good, the resource will degrade if we let the deer population get too high.

G&F: So what are you saying? Is some tweaking of the hunting regulations in order sometime down the road?

Taylor: I'm sure our biologists are looking at that. If we did propose some changes, it would be the sort of thing we'd want to discuss with the public before we came forward with it. There are myriad things we can do to regulate the deer population. We want to do what's best for the deer herd and for the hunting resource. I don't think anyone down in that area wants a gun season that would mirror the one we have in the rest of the state. We don't want to kill that many bucks.

G&F: You want to maintain that unique trophy resource.

Taylor: Sure. It's been great for the local economy. People will tell you that there are motels down there, and restaurants, and they're there to accommodate hunters. It's a significant part of the economy in some parts of the state.

G&F: Let's switch to bears for a bit. West Virginia's hunters enjoyed a record bear harvest in 2007. Why?

Taylor: A lot of the same conditions that made for a successful deer harvest also made for a successful bear harvest. Mast conditions were good enough to keep bears from going to their dens early, but mast wasn't abundant enough to keep bears from moving. So, everybody -- archers, dog hunters, still-hunters -- had a shot at bears on the move.

G&F: Statewide, the bear population has been expanding for quite a while. The current statewide population estimate is 12,000. Are we approaching a point where the DNR will want to slow the population growth?

Taylor: I think we're looking at liberalizing some bear-hunting opportunities. Whether that means increasing the bag limit or instituting some special seasons, we plan to use the same approach with bears that we did with deer.

G&F: A step-wise approach?

Taylor: A step-wise approach that is flexible enough to reflect what's going on with the bear population. We know how to kill bears. In the 1970s, we knew that our early gun season killed a lot of females and kept the population down. When we went away from that, we saw gradual growth and then exponential growth. So, we know that we have a lot of options (regarding the timing of seasons) if we want to slow population growth or, if we need to, reduce the population.

G&F: What criteria will you base those decisions on?

Taylor: The strange thing about bears is that you don't manage them based on their biological carrying capacity; you manage them based on the sociological carrying capacity -- how many bears the public is willing to tolerate.

G&F: Which way do you think public opinion is riding right now?

Taylor: We've done some studies, and there are agricultural areas of the state where people think we have too many bears. There are a lot of other places where people think the number of bears is just right or they even want to increase the population. The big question is what's going to happen in the state's western counties. You have fairly dense human populations there, and probably some areas that could never be opened to hunting with dogs because the land is carved up into a lot of small tracts. One landowner might not mind having dogs running bears on his property, but the guy next door might not want that at all. Getting around the land ownership issue is going to be a challenge.

G&F: So you have a high bear reproductive rate with an unfavorable land ownership pattern. What does that mean as far as regulations are concerned? To get around those problems, might you have to institute a spring season, or possibly allow bear hunting over bait?

Taylor: We've talked about spring hunts in the past, and at least at this time I don't think our staff is ready to propose any spring hunting; as for baiting, I can answer that with a definitive "hell no." I don't think that's a move we want to make. There are other tools we can use without going down that road.

G&F: Let's move on to turkeys. What is the state of the state's turkey population right now, Curtis?

Taylor: We've had a couple of good brood years -- not great, but better than those we've had recently. We went through a real bad spell there for a while, with weather that just wasn't conducive to getting good hatches of turkeys.

G&F: What are the factors that produce good hatches?

Taylor: Right now, we're dependent upon mast conditions and the weather during the time those broods are hatching. If we have a dry spring preceded by a good mast year, production is going to be good. Conversely, if we don't get those conditions, production is going to be down. We know that, from the population dynamic study we did on hens, that reproduction is driven by hens of age 2 and older. We know that the survival rate of hens is not all that good, so our management is focused on trying to get as many 2-year-old hens as we can.

G&F: Don't juvenile hens contribute to the population, too?

Taylor: Don't get me wrong. Juvenile hens will attempt to nest. But I've also seen juvenile hens stop, lay an egg, look at it, putt and run off. They have all the tools to breed, but they don't have the parenting skills. Our studies have shown that less than 10 percent of our juvenile hens are successful at breeding.

G&F: Aside from weather and mast conditions, what other factors affect turkey numbers?

Taylor: There are some habitat concerns. A fair amount of timber cutting is going on. Depending on the method used to cut it, timbering can either be good or bad for turkey reproduction. More than timbering, though, the factor that worries me most is all the corn that's getting spread around through the woods -- primarily for deer hunting.

G&F: Explain, please.

Taylor: When you go to Wal-Mart, Lowe's or wherever to buy corn, you see bags that have the words "deer corn" printed on them. There's a reason for that. The corn has an aflatoxin level so high, it can't legally be fed to cattle. Aflatoxin, of course, is a fungus. And it can be bad for turkeys. There are studies that show that high aflatoxin levels can restrict, reduce and curtail egg production in domestic turkeys. It hasn't yet been documented in wild turkeys, but we suspect it could be a problem here.

G&F: Let me make sure I understand. Do you believe that the deer feeding and deer baiting that goes on in West Virginia could be preventing turkeys from reaching their full population potential?

Taylor: I think absolutely. During our study of radio-collared hens, we gathered one of the largest data sets ever recorded in the country -- a tremendous amount of data. And one of the things we saw was direct mortality on turkeys because of where feed corn was placed. Feed corn increases predation by concentrating turkeys in a particular area. It also contributes to the spread of disease.

G&F: Could you elaborate on that?

Taylor: Every major disease of wild turkeys is transmitted through the ground by way of turkeys' droppings. When you have a feeder, you have turkeys coming in day after day after day, and they create a virtual mud hole. An environment like that increases the chances of disease transmission a hundredfold.

G&F: Your agency's biologists just concluded a radio telemetry study on gobblers. The results haven't been published yet, but give us a preview. What, basically, have you learned from the study?

Taylor: That you and I are the only predators that mature wild turkey gobblers have, for the most part. Gobblers don't suffer the same predation rates that hens do, by any stretch of the imagination.

G&F: Was that the purpose of the study?

Taylor: The main thing we wanted to find out from this study is whether our hunting seasons were putting too much pressure on gobblers. We wanted to know if we were killing too many, and if we were affecting the age ratio. We found out that we were not.

G&F: So our gobbler season will stay the length it is?

Taylor: Yes. But if the data had showed us something different, we were prepared to chan

ge the season. Trust me, if we spend that much money and that data tells us we should change the season, we would do it. You saw that after the hen study. The results from that indicated that we could open up fall seasons in additional counties, and we did that.

G&F: We both know that West Virginia has terrific hunting for small game -- squirrels, rabbits and so forth. I think we both know, too, that those species aren't hunted to the extent they used to be. Why do you think that is?

Taylor: A lot of kids today, the first thing they want to do is get a bow, climb up in a tree stand and kill a deer. And there's nothing wrong with that. But I think they cheat themselves because they miss a lot of the woodsmanship they otherwise would have learned if they'd started out hunting squirrels or some other small game. When you're a squirrel hunter, you have to know a fair amount about the biology of the critter. And you have to know a fair amount about the forest -- which trees produce mast, what they look like and where they're found. I'm afraid today's young hunters are missing out by not learning that information.

G&F: Does all the information available on videos, DVDs and the Internet allow young people to skip the small-game experience and go straight to big game?

Taylor: No. You can learn a lot, but last time I checked, there aren't many shows that focus on squirrel or other small-game hunting. I think you make yourself a better hunter, and a more avid hunter, if you include small game.

G&F: I guess it's kind of like stepping up to hunting's major leagues without any experience in the minors.

Taylor: The analogy I like to use is fishing. You wouldn't take a kid who'd never fished before to a trout stream, stick a fly rod in his hand, tie on a dry fly or nymph and expect him to do any good. Instead, you'd go to a bluegill pond, put a worm on his hook and a bobber on his line, and let him learn in a more relaxed environment. I may be way off base, but I think that's the better way to teach. And the same thing applies to hunting.

G&F: Thank you, Curtis.

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