Mountain State deer hunters will have ample opportunity to harvest a deer, or multiple deer, as 2011-12 hunting seasons get underway. Despite a significant fall off in deer harvest last season, there are plenty of whitetails out there.
This month we'll look at the status of whitetails in the state, and lay out a picture of the best places for bagging deer for the freezer. Next month we'll look at the trophy component of West Virginia deer hunting.
For at least two decades West Virginia Division of Wildlife game managers have been working toward bringing the state's whitetail herd in line with the available habitat, as well as levels of social acceptance. Not an easy task, considering that most hunters enjoy seeing high numbers of deer, while those in the agricultural and forestry markets — not to mention motorists swerving to avoid them — don't view deer with the same gleam in the eye.
The 105,743 bagged in 2009 via the state's various deer seasons was 32 percent lower than the 2008 harvest of 155,214.
According to the WVDNR, the 2010 antlerless deer season, which includes the youth/Class Q deer seasons, was 37 percent below 2009 and 29 percent below the five-year average of 48,225.
"It is important to note that part of the deer management strategy is to regulate the harvest of antlerless deer in individual counties to raise or lower the future deer population," said Frank Jezioro, WVDNR director.
The 2010 muzzleloader harvest of 6,041 was 35 percent less than the 2009 harvest of 9,232, and 27 percent below the five-year average of 8,290. It ranks only as the 21st highest total on record.
The bow hunters take of 21,203 deer was 26 percent below the 2009 harvest of 28,482, and 21 percent below the five-year average harvest of 26,916. The total also ranks 21st highest among past archery season harvests.
"The harvest of antlerless deer is the key to a healthier, heavier, and more productive deer herd," WVDNR Deer Biologist James Crum. "This is because there are natural limits to the number of deer the land can support. When these natural limits are exceeded, deer body weights, reproductive rates, antler development, and herd health declines, including an increased likelihood that deer will die over winter. If deer exceed natural limits long enough, habitat quality is reduced which produces a long-term reduction in the deer the land can support."
If a decrease in the deer herd is warranted, Crum said, the percentage of females needs to be more than 40 percent of the total harvest.
"Prior to the 2000 deer season, West Virginia's deer herd was on track for a better healthier herd," noted Crum. "Decreases in antlerless harvest in the 2000 and 2001 deer seasons temporarily slowed progress toward a better deer herd, but with landowners and hunters in the 2002 through 2004 deer seasons recognizing the need to harvest antlerless deer, the pace toward a better deer herd quickened."
Crum said that during that period, the recorded antlerless deer harvest exceeded the traditional firearm antlered buck harvest. The percentage of does in the statewide harvest exceeded 40 percent all three year, even though the total harvest in 2003 and 2004 declined. In 2005, the reductions in hunter opportunity to harvest antlerless deer resulted in a lower total deer harvest and a lesser percentage of female deer in the harvest, but the percentage was still 40 percent.
In 2006, the antlered deer harvest rebounded somewhat, but with further reductions in the opportunity to harvest antlerless deer the percentage of female deer in the harvest was well below the 40 percent mark. This allowed the deer herd to increase in 2007.
The percentage of female deer in the harvest in 2007 increased over that of 2006, but was still below the 40 percent level.
Finally, 2008 the harvest increased, as did the percentage of female does taken and that slowed deer herd growth in 2009. The percentage of female deer in the harvest in 2009 exceeded 40 percent, continuing the lower harvest into 2010.
The percentage of female deer in the harvest in 2010 declined to slightly below 40 percent. This, said Crum, should stabilize the deer herd growth in 2011.
"Over the last 18 years the yearly average number of antlered bucks harvested during all deer seasons has been four per square mile of deer habitat in West Virginia," added Crum. "Hunters and landowners must continually assess their expectations of the proper number of deer sightings versus the visible impacts deer have on vegetation, and manage the state's deer herd by encouraging antlerless deer harvest where needed."
West Virginia has rather liberal deer hunting seasons, including a two-week bucks-only season, plus extensive antlerless seasons. Add to these a long bow season, as well as a muzzleloader season. Season dates and bag limits vary, depending on the county being hunted, and whether you are on private or public lands. The taking of "bonus" deer requires the purchase of additional stamps, plus the base license. Be sure to review the current "Hunting and Trapping Regulations" booklet for all the details.
In a state like West Virginia with such diverse habitats, the sport differs from area to area. There's a big difference between the high elevation counties in the Monongahela National Forest and the fertile Ohio River bottomlands to the west. But one thing is consistent: regardless of where a Mountain State hunter lives, he is not far from good numbers of whitetails. A look at the top harvest counties illustrates that they are well sprinkled around the state.
While total harvest per county is a viable measure of deer density, keep in mind that all counties are not the same size. Another barometer is deer harvested per square mile of habitat. What this boils down to is that a heavily forested county like Randolph traditionally produces a lot of deer. But its deer per square mile rate may be well below many other counties. The county has a great deer population, but it's spread out in thousands of acres of forestland. The upside is hunter access is great, given that much of it is in public ownership.
Conversely, northern panhandle counties like Hancock and Brooke have extremely high deer per square miles of habitat numbers, but provide little in the way of public hunting.
What follows is a look at public hunting opportunities in the top harvest counties, based on last year's take. Remember, though, like most states, the majority of deer in West Virginia are taken on private land. By state law hunters can access private lands if they are not posted, fenced in, or the landowner has not specifically told you the land is closed to the public.
Preston County led all West Virginia counties last year with a total harvest of 5,407 whitetails via the combined seasons. Its harvest-to-square mile rate was 8.84 deer.
Sandwiched in the northeastern corner of the state, with Pennsylvania to the north and Maryland to the east, Preston has become a consistent producer of high deer harvests over the past several years.
Preston holds two state-owned wildlife management areas. Briery Mountain is a 1,162-acre parcel that's owned by the state armory and managed by the WVDNR. Hunters can expect to find a mixture on hardwood forest and open fields on this WMA.
County Route 86/4 bisects the tract, which is located near Kingwood.
Hunting at Briery Mountain WMA requires a free permit supplied by the state armory board. Call Camp Dawson Natural Resources office at (304) 791-4386 for more information.
Snake Hill WMA provides more than 3,000 acres of public hunting land. The state-owned property is found along the Cheat River, and is shared with neighboring Monongalia County. The terrain varies on the tract, with extremely steep slopes along the river canyon, and more moderate slopes in other areas.
The cover is made up of oak-hickory and cove hardwoods. Openings, many of which are the result of gas well clearings, are present.
County Roads 75 and 75/2 access the area, which is located near Dellslow.
This western West Virginia county, which borders the Ohio River, provided a total whitetail harvest in 2010 of 3,857. Its deer per square mile rate was 9.46.
Hunters looking for public land in Mason County can choose between Chief Cornstalk and McClintic WMAs.
Chief Cornstalk WMA covers nearly 12,000 acres. It is mostly wooded, with 85 percent existing as hardwood forest. The terrain varies from gentle to moderate slopes. Camping is permitted on 15 primitive sites found within the public hunting area. Chief Cornstalk is located near the towns of Gallipolis Ferry and Southside.
McClintic WMA's 3,665 acres offer much more diversity than most of the state's public hunting areas, which tend to be dominated by hardwood forest. Hunters can expect to find a mixture of farmland, brush land, wetlands and forests here. The area is found between Point Pleasant and Mason.
A total of 3,794 whitetails were bagged in Randolph County last season, for a deer per square mile rate of 3.75.
Randolph's heavily forested terrain features a variety of public hunting lands, made up of state-owned management areas, state forests, and national forest properties.
Becky Creek WMA, a 2,000-acre WMA located nine miles south of Huttonsville, is a mountainous area that is heavily forested. The tract is bisected by several creeks that can limit access during periods of high water. Camping is permitted in designated areas.
Huttonsville WMA covers more than 2,700 acres, and provides not only forested mountains, but open farmlands in its valley. The area abuts Huttonsville Correctional Facility, so borders are strictly enforced.
Kumbrabow State Forest is found nearby, and provides another 9,000 acres of public hunting land. Most of Kumbrabow is mountainous and forested. Cabins and campsites are available at this state forest.
Visit www.kumbrabow.com for more information.
Randolph County also contains extensive WMAs situated on lands of the Monongahela National Forest. Beaver Dam WMA covers more than 37,000 acres of hardwood forest-covered mountains. The Laurel Wilderness Areas are located within Beaver Dam, and feature 17 campsites.
Cheat WMA has another 80,000 acres of federally owned public land in Randolph County. Maple, beech and birch make up the majority of the cover, the rest blanketed by red spruce and oak-hickory. Primitive campsites are scattered around the area.
Monongalia County, which contains the city of Morgantown and its adjacent developed areas, produced 3,327 whitetails last year. Its deer per square mile rate was 10.34.
Despite being in an area of urban sprawl — Morgantown is home to West Virginia University — Monongalia features three public hunting options.
Little Creek WMA covers a bit more than 1,000 acres. It's found near Amettsville.
This is mostly a reclaimed surface mine area. The cover ranges from mixed hardwoods to open fields, with terrain varying from rolling hills to steep slopes.
Pedar WMA furnishes another nearly 800 acres by way of two separate tracts. Both are located near the town of Core.
The moderate slopes of Pedar are covered in a mixture of hardwoods of various ages. There are also numerous openings, the result of past natural gas and mining operations.
Coopers Rock State Forest offers nearly 13,000 acres of public hunting land. It's shared with neighboring Preston County.
The many rock outcroppings illustrate the ruggedness of portions of this state forest. Other areas feature more moderate slopes. It's heavily forested.
Thanks to easy access via Interstate 68, Coopers Rock is popular with hunters from the Morgantown area, which is only 10 miles to the west. Twenty-five trailer or tent campsites are found within the forest.
Last season's top five harvest counties were rounded out with Jackson, where hunters killed a total of 3,142 deer. The deer per square mile of habitat factor was 7.08.
Frozen Camp WMA provides the best bet in Jackson County for hunters looking for public land. While a couple other state WMAs exist in Jackson, they are of too small in size to be considered for deer hunting.
Located between the towns of Ripley and Marshall, Frozen Camp WMA contains in excess of 2,500 acres. The terrain on Frozen Camp includes steep, wooded slopes and bottomlands. The ridge tops have some openings.
The camping options listed earlier are always subject to change. Be sure to double check on their availability during deer season. While the WVDNR often keeps campgrounds open through the two-week buck season, it's wise to inquire beforehand.
Visit the WVDNR website at www.wvdnr.gov/hunting/hunting for additional information regarding the state's deer hunting opportunities, as well as any last minute news.