ELKINS, W.Va. — The buck season in West Virginia isn’t over yet, but more than a few hunters who chose to spend their first week hunting in West Virginia’s highest elevations are not happy. These high mountains at one time were the destination of hunters from throughout West Virginia, but times have changed.
“The deer herds here have crashed by half or more from a year ago and we didn’t have the deep killer snows last year, it was spread out.” writes Mike Snyder who lives in Dry Fork in Tucker County in an e-mail to Ram Trucks West Virginia Outdoors. “I live here. I can count the deer in the meadows as one measurement. I’m counting less than half.”
Another sources reported by the second day of buck season a check station in Harman in Randolph County, surrounded by Monongahela National Forest land, had only a handful of deer checked and most of those were of small body size.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources personnel are aware of the situation, but said it was nothing new. The trend has headed that direction for several years.
“We are aware of that and the primary issue there relates to habitat and habitat conditions,” said DNR Game Management Supervisor Gary Foster. “In a lot of the National Forest we’re not seeing the amount of forest management like timber sales and timber harvest we were seeing in the 70’s and early 80’s. We’ve lost a lot of that early successional and browse habitat.”
Timber sales on the million acre public forest are a fraction of what they were in the 1970’s. Two factors are blamed for the reduced level of logging. Lumber sales and demand have dropped in recent years, but have rebounded some in the last couple of years. The bigger obstacle is environmental groups opposed to all logging on federal land.
Although Snyder conceded logging had tapered some, he’s unconvinced it’s the sole problem for whitetail numbers and sizes in the mountain counties. He said predation and game management shared some of the blame.
“You can’t kill does annually in this climate without seeing diminished populations.” wrote Snyder. “Our mountains are not the same as in the broad valleys or the lower altitude hill country.”
“Historically the majority of the National Forest has been closed (to antlerless deer hunting) over the last several years with some exceptions,” said Foster. “But, I don’t think there’s any way you can point to over harvest on the national forest.”
Then there is the issue of predators. The main predator to be blamed in this case is the coyote. The coyote numbers in West Virginia have exploded in recent years. Contrary to a popular myth, the state never “stocked” coyotes in West Virginia. They’ve been here since the dawn of time and have increased in size and numbers as food sources increased and offered better nutrition. Snyder is convinced a large part of their diet is venison and mutton.
“The majority of the sheep raisers here have quit due to coyotes and raise Angus. And sheep don’t need browse, they need protection from the coyotes we hear nightly.” said Snider. “Coyotes have become a gruesome fact that the DNR is tuning out–they only see the tip of this iceberg.”
Foster doesn’t tune out the possibility of predation, particularly in areas where deer numbers are already low, but adds there are high numbers of coyotes all over the state and the impact is largely minimal.
“Coyotes get the blame. They definitely take fawn deer in the summer time. Where they may be having a little more of an impact is where you have lower populations,” Foster explained. “But overall I do not think the coyote is having a detrimental impact on whitetail deer populations across West Virginia.”
The problem with increasing numbers of coyotes isn’t exclusive to West Virginia, nor is the habitat problem. Many states in the eastern half of the country are dealing with identical problems of maturing hardwood forest and over abundant coyotes.
“In heavily forested states like West Virginia where we’re 80 percent woods, you’ve got to have good mast conditions, but you’ve also got to have a balance of young forest in that sapling stage,” Foster said. “Then when mast conditions are poor, deer can browse on stems and twigs. When you don’t have that it’s very hard on deer.”
The final numbers on the 2013 buck season won’t be known for several weeks when the season is over and check tags are collected.