CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Although the West Virginia Natural Resources Commission made no decisions on the hot-button question of lowering West Virginia’s bag limit for antlered bucks, there was plenty of discussion about it during a meeting this week.
Gathered into a room at the District 5 headquarters on the Forks of Coal Natural Area on Sunday, Commissioners and DNR staff engaged in a sometimes tense exchange about whether the buck limit will be put to a vote at the August meeting of the Commission.
Director Steve McDaniel was adamant about reaching a decision on the matter August 4 at Tygart Lake State Park,.
“I don’t know if there’s any right way to get the Commission to vote one way or the other. Ultimately it’s the Commission’s decision. If we get to August and the Commission feels they don’t have enough information and they want to make a motion to table it, that will be their decision,” said McDaniel in remarks to the meeting.
“As director, I feel it’s important for us to take some kind of measure, because I don’t want to see the Commission lose their authority to set bag limits.”
McDaniel said at the Commission’s February meeting he wanted to see a decision made after battling back against legislation introduced in the last two regular legislative sessions. That called for a lowering of the buck limit, a duty specifically delegated by code to the Commission.
But there was clearly concern from some Commission members about whether they would have enough information to make the decision in August.
“What this comes down to, the nitty-gritty of all this is, ‘Can we afford to do this?'” said Commissioner Tom Dotson.
“The decision to lower it to two depends entirely on whether everybody who hunts is willing to pay a little more for their hunting license.I think it comes down to money.”
Whether the answer is clear by the August meeting is doubtful.
“It is a rather complicated issue because what we’re talking about is doing the right thing in terms of our fiduciary responsibility and making sure we continue to be able to turn the lights on,” said DNR Wildlife Chief Paul Johansen, while answering questions of the Commission.
“I want to make it clear we are NOT proposing any license fee increase, we are just doing an assessment and looking at a path forward in doing the right thing when it comes to taking care of hunters and anglers.”
Johansen made the point three times during the public discussion.
The DNR has contracted with Southwick Associates for an extensive study on the possible restructuring of West Virginia’s hunting and fishing license fees.
Southwick is nationally recognized for expertise in accurately assessing the proper guidance for hunting and fishing fee structures, but the study will take time.
“We have a study and we have an assessment, as a Commission are we going to know in August what the possible assessment monetarily will mean reducing from three bucks to two?” asked Commissioner Jeff Bowers.
“What economic impact will that have on keeping the doors open and the lights on?”
Johansen responded, “The Southwick study will not have the data available by August meeting. We have generated numbers internal to the agency and we’ve taken a look under our current structure what that impact will be. But the Southwick data won’t be available until next year sometime.”
Deputy Director Emily Fleming echoed Johansen’s sentiments, saying the legislative process beyond the study would take even longer.
“It’s not an easy process: We have to have legislative changes and legislative rule changes. That will be a public process as well,” she said. “It’s going to take a couple of years because you have to have legislation passed and then go back and change legislative rules.”
But there is even concern about who will be questioned in the survey. Commissioner Pete Cuffaro asked if landowners would be included in Southwick’s survey. McDaniel offered in the discussion they would not, and the plan was to pose questions exclusively to license buyers and not include landowners, who do not have to purchase a license.
“I believe the landowners should be counted in the survey,” Cuffaro said. “If they hunt, even on their own land, they should be in the survey.”
One key piece of data was presented Sunday. It was a question posed to those who attended the Sportsman’s Sectional Meetings in March. The question read:
“The Director of the Division of Natural Resources seeks your opinion as to whether you favor reducing the annual antlered deer bag limit from three (3) to two (2) antlered bucks per year.”
The results were roughly 68 percent in favor and 32 percent opposed.
McDaniel believed the Commission needed to make a decision on whether to lower the buck limit before the Southwick study, a study that will cost sportsmen roughly $117,000.
“When we met with Southwick they said it would be futile to go out and do their survey and then us turn around and change the bag limits from 3 to 2,” McDaniel said.
“If we pay them $100,000 to do the survey, then vote as a Commission to lower the limit — then the information they get is is not going to be accurate. It was a suggestion that it might be better for the Commission to vote on that before the survey.”
However, there remained considerable concern about the taking action without knowing the repercussions.
“So we need this Southwick study back to give us the right information to make an informed decision?” Commissioner Kenny Wilson asked.
“At this time, there is no proposal from the DNR for a reduction in the buck limit until we get this back and move forward with this study and it’s prudent to let us make an informed decision on that issue. Is that correct?”
Johansen confirmed Wilson’s scenario was correct.
“There are really two different issues here. One is do we want to reduce the overall annual buck limit from 3 to 2 — that’s a legitimate question,” Johansen said.
“The other is a much larger issue and that is the whole question of restructuring the license system. Quite frankly this has gotten confounded. This information from Southwick next year is going to be extremely helpful in plotting a way forward.”
The near half-hour discussion concluded with McDaniel intent on pressing for a vote up or down on lowering the buck limit during the August meeting.
He committed to provide as much data as Commissioners sought and would work to answer as many questions as they had ahead of the vote. There was also a certainty the Southwick Associates study of a possible license restructure will not be done by then.