Though Mountain State hunters harvested significantly fewer deer last season than during prior years, the outlook for the coming season is quite promising.
"Last year's harvest — the 2014 season — was down," said Chris Ryan, supervisor of game management services for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "The primary reason was the mast conditions. We had extraordinary mast conditions across a lot of our state. There were a lot of acorns available.
The acorns disperse the deer across the entire landscape. Since they didn't come to specific food sources it made it harder for hunters to harvest them."
More specifically, the two-week buck season experienced a 34 percent drop from the prior year, when 56,523 bucks were taken. The total for 2014 was 37,277. In addition to the abundant food supplies, other factors contributed to the lower kill.
According to the DNR, a warm and windy opening day, heavy snowfall on the third day of the season in the eastern panhandle and a rainy second week of the season negatively impacted hunter participation, undoubtedly affecting the buck harvest. In terms of total deer harvest, hunters took 104,707 deer in 2014, a 31 percent decrease from 2013 and a 23 percent decrease over the previous five-year average.
"The last time we had a tremendous oak mast production was in 2010," Ryan noted. "Our harvest during that year dropped significantly. We had a lot of guys that were upset or concerned about the deer population that year. In 2011, the harvest increased about 50 percent. Basically that was due to the holdover of deer from 2010.
As we try to tell people, those animals were there, they were just spread out. So I would expect the numbers to go up 40 percent or so during the 2015 season. And due to the carryover of deer from 2014, there will be some bigger, older bucks out there."
While it is truly difficult to predict mast conditions, the spring weather was conducive to a good acorn crop, so hunters may well be faced with another season where deer are not coming to specific food sources, as is the case when the hard mast is spottier. However, the large amounts of food also reduce winter die-off, meaning more deer in the woods.
Of course, deer management has become a more complex task over the past couple of decades. Managing white-tailed deer in a state with diverse habitats is no easy chore. Hunters, as major stakeholders and the primary tool in deer management, benefit themselves by keeping current on strategies and the regulations that come with them.
"Basically we are trying to manage the deer herd in a variety of biological and physiological factors," Ryan explained. "We take into consideration what the land can support as well as what the residents want, and the residents include the hunters.
So we are looking at a lot of different factors; a lot of different parameters, to come up with an objective in each of the counties."
In general, the DNR will provide more conservative deer license allocations for the 2015 season, an indication that in many counties deer numbers are in balance with management objectives. Ryan said that the DNR, in general, is pleased with how deer populations have responded to hunting efforts over the past five to 10 years.
Of course, harvests vary by district because both habitat and public hunting opportunities are different. Keep in mind that roughly half of the deer taken in the state each year come off of private land.
This is especially significant in agricultural areas, or places where public lands are small or nonexistent. Deer populations are often highest in such places (in terms of deer per square mile of forest). As such, it's the wise hunter that knocks on some doors in an effort to gain permission to hunt private lands.
This district sits in the north-central part of the state, and, according to Ryan, traditionally has very good deer habitat throughout many of its counties.
"It has a mixture of hardwoods and open land and old farms, and will support higher numbers of deer than many other areas of the state," Ryan said. "These counties, as a whole, have had higher deer numbers over the past 15 to 20 years, but they've also been much more in the past five to 10 years of getting those numbers more in line with our objectives for each of those counties."
Last year hunters took a total of 24,198 deer from District 1. Two of the top public areas were Lewis Wetzel WMA and Cooper Rock State Forest. In terms of best counties per square mile of forest, Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties all boasted deer harvest rates in excess of 10 deer per square mile of habitat.
Covering the eastern panhandle, this district starts around the Allegheny Front and basically runs out to the Maryland and Virginia borders.
"They have a lot of agriculture in some areas of this district, and in such places, can support higher deer populations," Ryan explained. "We've had liberalized seasons, especially within our Chronic Wasting Disease Management Area, which is within this district. These counties have also come more in line with what their management objectives area."
Ryan notes a major change that will impact deer hunting within District 2. With the exception of Pendleton County, the baiting of deer will not be allowed. Baiting encourages deer concentrations and the possible spread of CWD. These changes occurred during the May DNR Commission meeting. Be sure to consult the regulations, or visit the WVDNR website for the latest information.
Short Mountain traditionally is one of the more productive WMAs for deer hunters in this district. As a district, hunters took 14,507 deer during the 2015 season. Jefferson and Mineral counties had the highest deer kills per square mile of deer habitat, both at a rate of 6.5 deer.
Containing the traditional mountain counties, much of District 3 falls within the Monongahela National Forest, as well as George Washington and Jefferson national forests.
"In our higher elevation mountain counties our harvest tends to fluctuate more, depending on mast conditions," Ryan stated.
Another factor that plays into the deer picture in the mountain counties is the lack of timbering on national forest land. When only a few thousand acres are cut each year in an area with around 1 million acres of timber, a lot of game animals are going to be impacted, particularly game that like edges, such as turkeys, grouse and deer. While the state DNR is responsible for game management on national forest lands, the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for timber management.
Though deer numbers per square mile of forested habitat can be comparatively low, this area provides the opportunity to hunt in a big woods setting, and the remoteness that comes along with it. Those wanting to get away from other hunters can do it in this area.
Last year, 18,074 deer were taken in District 3, and the top public area was Stonewall Jackson WMA. Upshur (8.71), Nicholas (8.44) and Braxton (5.52) counties had the highest harvest rates per square mile of habitat.
DISTRICT 4 AND DISTRICT 5
Districts 4 and 5 are very similar, with management goals that resemble one another due to the comparable habitat and land use.
"It's southern Appalachia, with rugged hills," Ryan noted. "Hunters will do well when they figure out the mast crops for the year. Within this region we have the four bowhunting-only counties provide a unique hunting opportunity, where a great diversity of age classes are present and where many bucks can reach maturity as four and five year-old deer."
According to Ryan, the ruggedness of the region also plays into deer reaching older ages, not only within the four-county bowhunting-only area, but surrounding counties (such as Fayette) as well.
"It's extremely steep and very rugged," Ryan said. "Hunters need to be in good shape, and also have a great deal of patience. The deer populations aren't as high within this area."
Bluestone and Cornstalk are two of the best public hunting areas within these two districts. During the 2014 season, hunters took 13,272 and 13,722 from District 4 and District 5 respectively. Monroe County (6.02) in District 4 and Mason (7.77) in District 5 boasted the highest harvest rates measured per square mile of habitat.
Considering it includes the state's Ohio River counties, District 6 is a good place for hunters.
"This district supports one of our larger deer populations," he said. "It's similar to District 1 in terms of habitat."
Last season hunters took a total of 20,934 deer from District 6, and the top producing pubic land was Hughes River WMA. Wirt and Wood counties logged the highest harvest rate per square mile, with 8.51 and 10.17 respectively. All counties within this district had harvests in excess of five per square mile.
However, hunters should also be aware of a couple significant changes for this year, one in regard to the use of crossbows; the other in the way deer harvests are reported.
Starting this year, crossbows may be used during any archery season, and may be substituted during any big-game firearms season, with the exception of Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties (the four bowhunting-only counties). In the other 51 counties, during archery hunting seasons, hunters can now use a crossbow without a Class Y permit.
Also, as of April the WVDNR made operational its electronic checking system. Hunters can now register harvests via this system.
"In West Virginia we check-in eight different species," Ryan explained. "This includes deer, bear, turkey, boar, bobcat, fisher, beaver and otter."
With the new system, hunters can check-in harvests via telephone, the Internet or at one of the 180-plus license issuing agents.
"You have to have a DNR I.D. number to use this system," Ryan said. "For the annual license holder, the number will be in the upper left-hand corner of the license. If they are a lifetime license holder, or a landowner (that is not required to purchase a license), they will need to obtain this I.D. number. This can be done online at www.wvhunt.com or they can stop by an agent to do so."
According to Ryan, the telephone is the most popular method, though many people also use www.wvhunt.com.
"We tried to make it as user friendly as possible," Ryan said. "It worked extremely well during spring turkey season. But the main thing folks need to know is that if they don't have the I.D. number, it's something they'll want to do before heading out into the woods come buck season."