CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia hunters may remember the 2020 spring gobbler season. Everybody was excited to get into the woods because, we had been locked down with worry and uncertainty over the newly discovered ailment known as Covid 19. We were encouraged to practice a new way of behaving called “social distancing.” We all did. After all, there’s no better place to be socially distant than in the West Virginia hills on a hunting trip.
What you may not recall as vividly from that sprig time quest for a long beard was the chill in the air, especially in the early part of the season. It was a cold spring and in the higher elevations some of us hunted some in the snow. Those conditions which are a memory now, are coming home to roost with the Division of Natural Resources 2020 West Virginia mast survey.
“This is the worst one we’ve every had in terms of numerical score,” said Chris Ryan of the DNR one of the co-authors of the annual report.
The survey is compiled by the observations of biologist, foresters, and other qualified and trained individuals from the DNR, Division of Forestry, and some retired employees of those agencies. It ranks 18 species of the most widely available wildlife food sources. based on their abundance when compared to last year’s crop and the average over the life of the survey. This is the 50th years for the mast survey.
“Sixteen of our eighteen species are in pretty bad shape compared to the long term average and compared to last year. Unless it’s red oak/scarlet oak or black oak, things are pretty dim this year,” Ryan shared in this week’s edition of West Virginia Outdoors on MetroNews.
Each year the survey is broken down into hard mast, of which there are eight species. Soft mast are the other eight. species surveyed. Hard mast is typically the go to meal during the fall for deer, bear, turkey, squirrels and a host of other critters. Acorns are the most sought after in many cases. But the much desired white oak fell drastically again across all regions of the state.
“White oak and chestnut oak were bad last year, but hickory, which supports quite a few species is down significantly from last year. Squirrels and bears go to the hickory pretty fast because those hickory nuts are very high in carbohydrates and fat. A bear can put on a lot of weight by hitting the hickory flats, but this year it’s going to be real hard for them to find a lot of good hickory,” Ryan explained.
Typically through the summer months and into the fall, soft mast because the sustenance of wildlife. But even the backup pantry for the critters of West Virginia is limping along this year.
“It is bad, bad, bad, bad when it comes to soft mast. I have never seen those nine species of what we call the soft mast group all be negative both from last year and the long term average. That has impacted things that have happened in the summertime,” Ryan said.
There was early evidence of a mast failure brewing when bears were already causing nuisance complaints in the early summer months. For the DNR’s bear team those complaints are the canary in the coal mine to forecast a shortage of eats. Bear complaints have multiplied as the food supply dwindled.
Hunters in the eastern panhandle had one bright spot reflected in the report.. The beech crops was up considerably from last year in the region and will impact hunting for bears and turkeys especially.
Low mast counts may seem like doom and gloom in how it is reported, but ironically, the conditions bode well for West Virginia hunters.
“A lot of times, it’s the opposite. particularly when you talk about species which rely on certain types of food, it becomes a lot easier to pattern animals and a lot easier to predict where they are going,” Ryan said.
Under low mast conditions, game will have to travel more to reach the scarce food resources. More game will congregate in those areas and in many cases, they’ll break cover and head into open fields to feed. All of those conditions make game more vulnerable to hunters than in a year when mast is abundant and keeps them spread out widely across the landscape.