3:06pm: Hotline with Dave Weekley

Be careful what you wish for

Legislation introduced this week aims to lower the buck limit in West Virginia from three bucks annually to two. The measure also requires hunters to kill a doe before their second buck–and the second buck must meet strict rules regarding its antler size.

The measure comes after several years of high profile discussion on social media about the idea of a different direction for deer management in the state. Some are adamant, the lowering of the buck limit will improve the average size of the bucks killed in the Mountain State. Those individuals have become frustrated after the pace of change hasn’t been rapid enough on their ideas with the Natural Resources Commission.

As the old adage goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Lawmakers agreed to introduce the measure which would force the Commission’s hand–and ultimately handcuff staff at the Division of Natural Resources.

Along with the measure comes a proposal which would dramatically increase the cost of hunting license and some of the associated stamps. Advocates claim the costs are actually offset by the elimination of the Class N stamps and other license “add-ons.”

Ironically, it was the Republican leadership in the legislature only a few years ago which killed a scheduled increase in license fees after they were tied to the Consumer Price Index. The idea with previously passed law was to allow hunting and fishing license costs to rise incrementally with the rate of inflation–therefore negating a massive increase all at one time.

Reaction to the increased rates in the bill has been met with not so surprising sticker shock. It should also be pointed out the Natural Resources Commission has no authority to set license fees and has no financial control at all. All monetary decisions on hunting and fishing license are at the sole discretion of the legislature.

Whether any of this is a good idea or a terrible idea really depends on whom you ask. The debate will go on and it’s unlikely to be settled anytime soon.

However, as I have watched the developments this week I am reminded of another old adage, “…be careful what you wish for.” Certainly elected members of the legislature, by nature, should serve constituents. That is their job. I have no doubt that’s what happened with the introduction of the bills concerning deer management. But allowing politicians to make wildlife management decisions and taking those out of the hands of trained biologists is a dangerous direction to go.

I’ve been covering outdoor news in West Virginia long enough to remember the very ugly fight in the legislature in the 1990’s. During that era, the deer numbers in West Virginia were at their highest level in history. Deer were causing widespread damage to farms, gardens, yards, and being struck along the highway in numbers well beyond what we see today. The West Virginia Farm Bureau wielded its considerable influence at the legislature to push for legislation which would have forced the DNR to undertake a near scorch the earth management policy and radically reduce the deer population.

At the time, DNR acknowledged the problem, but said the agency’s biologists had the proper management in place to address the overpopulation and predicted the numbers would come back into line without harming the resource if allowed to play out. Ultimately that is what happened, although the agency will still tell you today there are parts of West Viginia which have more deer than the carrying capacity of the landscape.

It took an unprecedented uniting of conservation and sportsman’s organization in West Virginia to stop the bill. The most ardent critics nicknamed the legislation the “Deer Slaughter Bill.” The most memorable moment of the high profile debate was a public hearing on the bill which had so many attendees and speakers it had to be moved to the state Culture Center. There it was still standing room only with almost everyone in the crowd clad either in blaze orange or camouflage. The bill ultimately died. It was a victory for sportsmen for sure, but even more it was a victory of the state’s natural resources because the mantra was to let biologists and not politicians make biological decisions.

We’ve seen examples where politicians have dabbled in game management in other states with some epic fails. Check out the cougar issues in California, the bear hunting in Maryland, and Virginia’s muzzleloader season which always opens the week before buck season. All were decisions which have negatively impacted hunting and were not recommendations from those states’ trained biologists.

We as hunters and anglers are the ultimate constituents and yes our opinions matter, but it never hurts to be leery of management proposals from a politician. While some of the legislative members involved in the most recent proposals are hunters and do have the best interest of hunting and fishing in their heart, that may not always been the case. If we start down the road of allowing politics to guide the decisions on game and fish management, it may be a direction we all as sportsmen live to regret.