ELKINS, W.Va. – When West Virginia wildlife go shopping for groceries this fall, Mother Nature has well stocked shelves, but for the most sought-after item on the menu for white tail deer, the cupboard is almost bare.
“The white oak is down a lot,” said Chris Ryan, Special Projects Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and one of the authors of the 2019 DNR Mast Survey.
“It’s down below its long-term average and down a lot from last year. Of course, the white oak is one of the more favored crops of our wildlife species,” he said.
The less preferred red oak, black oak, and scrub oak made major rebounds from a year ago. The higher content of tannins in those oak species make them less tasty for deer and other wildlife. However, Ryan noted those species take longer to develop. Therefore, they weren’t quite ripe a year ago. It’s a balance, since in a year where they both miss it is a complete mast failure.
“A lot of times it’s the weather pattern in the springtime,” Ryan said in a recent appearance on West Virginia Outdoors. “You’ll get real heavy rain or if you get a lot of wind it will impact pollination. Those are the main factors that are going to influence that.”
Since most of the state hasn’t seen any significant rain in almost a month, it’s hard to remember spring of 2019 was a wet one for West Virginia.
Beech and walnut both hit well for a second year and were above 2018 and the long-term average. Hickory nuts were above the long-term average, but Ryan said most folks will think it was down because the hickory hit so well last fall. The hickory is still plentiful. Squirrels will eat well and their reproduction for next year will be strong.
The mast index every year is based on observations by cooperators and staff within the DNR who have a set series of trees across their designated area they observe.
“They do those surveys on the same location year, after year, after year. They’ll rate each of the 18 species if they occur in their area. They’ll rate them as ‘common’, ‘abundant’, or ‘scarce’. This year we had 263 surveys done around the state and you come up with a number for each of the 18 species,” said Ryan.
This is the 42nd annual report. The longevity gives biologists a better comparison to past years and trends.
Of the 18 species surveyed half are the oaks and hard mast, but the other half include soft mast species which are equally important to many species. Wildlife which feed on apples are going to live well going into the winter.
“It was incredible. I don’t think you can drive around the state without seeing a good apple tree,” Ryan said.
Most apple trees in the state are leftover orchards from generations ago. The trees were planted originally to sustain homestead cabins or farm families across the state. The cabins and farms may be long gone, but the apple trees remain and continue to produce fruit. The best variety are those which will hold apples well into the fall. Wildlife will locate those and visit them regularly.
Other than apple, there are other critical soft mast species like wild cherry which produced well according to Ryan.
“Cherry is up a lot from last year and the long-term average. It’s across the state, but when you go to the mountains and find those cherry, you’ll find turkeys and other game out there scratching them up and eating it. On those old strip mine benches in southern West Virginia, bears are going to be up in those cherry trees breaking limbs and eating those cherries,” he said.
Beyond mast production, the survey includes a hunting outlook from the agency for the 2019 seasons. White tail deer season looks to be about the same as last year. The one exception is the Mountaineer Heritage Season which comes in after the first of the year and allows only primitive style hunting implements. Last year was the inaugural year for the season, which proved to be wildly popular. The DNR estimates more people will participate this year, which should up the harvest.
The outlook for black bear is strong for the coming fall season. Biologist predict a higher harvest than 2018, barring a sudden snowstorm in December.
Squirrels are abundant in the Mountain State thanks to a stellar mast crop for the last two years, which should translate to plenty of hunting opportunities.
Rabbits, wild boar, and ruffed grouse are all predicted to be below the 2018 harvest. Turkey hunters will likely experienced less success as well with wild turkey brood numbers down this year.