TYGART LAKE, W.Va. – A much talked about decision over whether West Virginia’s annual buck limit is lowered from three to two will wait another nine months. A more than three-hour meeting at Tygart Lake State Park Sunday resulted in a tabling of the matter until the May 2020 Natural Resources Commission meeting.
“I thought we were going to put it to rest today, but I guess we’ll continue to talk about it some more,” said West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Steve McDaniel as members of the Natural Resources Commission voted unanimously to table the issue until the May meeting.
The vote followed a motion by Commissioner Greg Burnette to vote to lower the buck limit from three to two. His motion which failed for lack of a second. Commissioner Dr. Tom Dotson’s motion to delay the vote until next year hinged on two factors.
One was a pending survey being conducted for the DNR by Southwick Associates on a restructuring of the hunting license in West Virginia. Dotson indicated while he was not necessarily opposed to lowering the buck limit from three annually to two, he was cautious about what the cost would be.
“We need two things before we can vote. We need to see the results of the Southwick Study and we need to see if the legislature is willing to work with us on raising the cost of a license,” said Dotson.
West Virginia hunters haven’t had a license increase since 2005 and the DNR was emphatically clear they were not looking for one in 2020.
“The DNR is NOT proposing a license fee increase,” said Wildlife Section Chief Paul Johansen. “We’re working with one of the most renowned groups in North America on how best to bundle these privileges and see what sportsmen and women are willing to bare in terms of cost, but we’re not proposing to raise the cost of a license.”
McDaniel echoed Johansen’s emphatic declaration they were not seeking a fee increase, but he also added lowering the buck limit will come at a cost.
“If you reduce this from three to two you are going to see a financial impact. $1.5 Million is a lot of take from the wildlife section over the last two years,” he said.
His projection is based on two different sets of analysis provided by the agency and presented to Commissioners during Sunday’s meeting. This isn’t a new idea. Twice before the Commission lowered the buck limit, first in 1995 from five bucks to two. It was a decision which the Commission rescinded a year later amid public outcry. The move was made again in 2005 lowering it from five to the present level of three. Both moves resulted in a revenue loss in license sales—which were buffered by a license fee increase.
After the 2005 reduction, license sales dropped by 2007 by more than 200,000. Even with a license fee increase, the agency saw a loss in revenue of $64,000. The 1995 reduction saw a drop in deer license sales by 125,000 by 1997. The move was also followed by a license fee increase. Scott Cline, with the DNR Administrative Section reported without that increase the revenue loss that time would have topped $513,000.
“Based on data and passed experience if buck limit were reduced, DNR would expect to lose $828,432 within three years without a price increase. Initially $568,000 in the first year,” said Cline.
Aside from the potential cost of the move, presentations reflected a deep divide within the DNR’s constituency over the impact from lowering the buck limit.
The mood of the room for the meeting clearly favored lowering the limit. One speaker after another during the meeting’s public portion urged members of the Commission to act immediately to lower the limit.
“I know the commission is concerned what lowering the limit will do for revenue with DNR. We will help you with that,” offered Shon Butler of Buckhannon. ” We’ll lobby our Delegates and Senators to raise the license fee. It’s only going to take two or three dollars to pay for this if you lower the limit. Hundreds of thousands of sportsmen are watching closely and 20,000 of us in this movement are paying very close attention. This is the right thing to do for the future of hunting.”
Jeremy Preston, head of Mountaineer Chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association agreed in his remarks to the Commission.
“This movement is not something I see stopping anytime soon. It’s probably not going to stop until I drop. There’s a change in the hunting culture today. In West Virginia we see opportunity a little different now. Instead of just killing a buck…we want to see more older age classes. I think we have better understanding of science and the need to kill does. We shoot too many bucks.”
Kip Adams, National Conservation Director for QDMA also made a presentation to the commission which emphasized the sentiment.
“We need hunters, more than anything else today, willing to shoot an antlerless deer. When we ask hunters to kill more antlerless deer, only 17 percent killed more than one.”
Adams in his presentation suggested the state of Tennessee had seen a stark improvement in the Volunteer state’s buck to doe ratio after lowering the buck limit from three to two. His presentation indicated the average age of a harvested buck in Tennessee had also increased.
“The average age structure has increased. Hunters aren’t going to burn that second tag on a small deer, they’ll save it to take a bigger buck,” said Adams.
While there was overwhelming support within the room for lowering the buck limit, data from other work by Southwick suggested the a much wider difference of opinion in the general population. The survey included 14,600 licensed West Virginia hunters, 2,500 landowners, and 5,213 non-resident licensed hunters. The results, presented to the Commission Sunday found 56% favored lowering the buck limit from three to two, 40% favored making no changes, and 4% had no opinion.
Southwick said the primary reason for both lowering the limit and not lowering the limit was identical; to provide better management. As if to emphasize the emotion of the issue, Southwick offered an option to give an open-ended narrative and received more than 61 pages of responses.
“This is a very divided issue with about the same number for it as against it and with extreme emotion on both sides,” said Johansen.
He offered an analysis indicating for all of the effort, the reward may not be what sportsmen had hoped.
“The advantage of reducing the limit is, there may be a positive perception by the hunting public that the DNR is attempting to grow deer with larger antlers, a trait that most hunters desire,” said Johansen in summarizing the agency’s recommendation to the Commissioners.
However, he listed three distinct disadvantages to reduction of the limit from three to two.
–Present biological data indicates yearling antlered buck mortality is not excessive and any benefits to antler size would be minimal.
–Only a small number of hunters harvest three antlered deer at the present time, but perceived opportunity to pursue antlered bucks appears to be a strong motivation for hunters to deer hunt.
–An adoption of this proposed change would be misleading to the public because it will not produce a noticeable shift in the age structure of bucks.
Johansen in his agency recommendation on lowering the buck limit concluded,
“The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources recommends that at the current time the maximum annual three antlered buck bag limit for the base license remain the same.”
Whether it happens remains an open-ended question which will remain unanswered until at least May. Between now and then will be an election year legislative session, a deer hunting season, new bag limit proposals in February, Sportsman Sectional Meetings, and three meetings of the Natural Resources Commission—the last of which this matter is slated to be revisited.
“Again, let me reiterate, the West Virginia DNR is NOT asking the legislature for an increase in the cost of a license,” McDaniel added in his closing remarks.
“We will be,” responded an unidentified voice from the crowd.