West Virginia whitetail harvest over last decade sees drastic decline

Deer, Hunting

A change is happening in the Mountain State, and it isn’t good. 

West Virginia is known for a lot of poor qualities when put up against the other 49 states, but something that a lot of people aren’t talking about is the consistent decline of whitetail deer harvests. In 2008, hunters totaled 163,603 kills across the four month season. A year later, they only tallied 155,214, and in 2010 that number plummeted to 106,499, a 31.4 percent decrease. Since then, they’ve only surpassed the 140,000-mark once. 

Numbers show a bad trend

In 2017 – the last year the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources published preliminary harvest numbers – hunters took 44,127 bucks in gun season and 33,584 doe from late September to the new year. Antlerless deer numbers dropped 3.5 percent from 2016 (32,508), and was 22 percent below the five-year average (43,145). Buck kills also dropped, but not significantly, from 46,071. 

What’s telling of a recent trend, though, is that in 2016 doe harvests dropped 18 percent from 39,853 in 2015 to 32,508. The 2016 total was 26.5 percent below the then-five-year average. The buck gun season harvest also saw a sharp decline from 60,814 to 46,071, but it was still far above the doe harvest. 

(West Virginia Division of Natural Resources photo)

As stated, the skew in numbers is a recent trend. After the 2011 season that saw 38,381 doe harvested compared to 60,516 bucks in gun season, hunters began taking more doe. In 2012, the anterless harvest saw a 17.7 percent increase, followed by 27 percent increase in 2013. That year, hunters nearly matched the buck gun harvest with doe (57,028 bucks, 57,350 antlerless). After 2013, however, the harvest declined and in 2015, gun season buck numbers superseded doe 60,814-to-39,853. Since then, the harvests have been lopsided. 

That, combined with the state total harvest decreasing more than 30,000 from 2015-2017, and it’s a recipe for a conservation issue.

So how did this happen? There are plenty of factors leading to the population growing over carrying capacity such as the breakdown of doe-to-buck harvest. Obviously, when less doe are taken over four months and hunters are more concerned about the trophy bucks, more fawn will be born. Other factors, such as lack of interest in hunting, weather changes and changes in mast affect the population. 

Lack of interest in the new generation

It’s not overreaching to say that younger millennials (22 to 30 year olds)  and Generation Z (21 years old and under) don’t take part in outdoor activities as much as their parents and grandparents. Being part of the millennial generation, it took a while for me to begin doing things outdoors on my own and I know a large portion of my friend base doesn’t take part. I’d venture to say less than 30 of my connections that I grew up with or went to college with hunt or fish. My leg up on my generation, though, is that I grew up in a rural area of West Virginia and my dad forced me out of the house for outdoor activity as a kid. 

At the very least, that planted a seed in my brain that when I got into college, I missed it enough to keep with it. Now, I couldn’t imagine not exploring the outdoors, and surround myself with people with that similar interest. 

And over the last few years, I’ve personally seen the growth of video games and other electronic escapes. Is there anything wrong with that? Not at all, it’s a great way to burn time for some people and is one of the more relaxing things I like to do on my down time, but there is certainly the ability to get addicted to them. That, too, I’ve witnessed. 

In a previous interview with DNR District 2 biologist Rich Rogers in September 2018, he noted the generation decline as well as other key factors. 

“It’s a combination of issues,” Rogers said. “One of which is lack of land for hunting anything – it’s all tied up in development, towns and farmland that only allows a certain amount of people to hunt. It’s a major issue with trying to hunt enough doe and deer, period.

“It’s [also] changing demographics – the hunting population is getting older and we’re not replacing them. Young people aren’t picking up the hobbies that their forefathers had. People are in front of a screen all day, and they’d rather hunt on a screen than actually go out in the woods and learn something.”

One solution to the growing development issue is allowing urban hunts. Multiple cities across West Virginia allow them, and it reduces the risk of vehicle-deer collisions. 

“Urban hunting, most importantly, lowered the extremely high deer population which resulted in fewer deer collisions,” said John Paul Tupta, a former student at West Virginia University. While attending WVU, Tupta took part in Morgantown’s urban hunt. 

“There were also less people dealing with deer eating their gardens, and it made the overall herd healthier since there was more food and cover for each individual deer.

“Thousands of pounds of deer meat was also donated by the urban hunters to food banks and soup kitchens. It benefitted hunters by giving them a convenient and safe place to hunt, a great opportunity to have fun, fill their freezers and help the less fortunate.”

Weather and food 

One fact is true about hunting any species: if you understand the basics of weather and natural food sources, you’re a better hunter. 

A lot of it is common sense and can be deduced by simply hunting for a few years or spending time out in the woods watching and tracking animals. 

Starting with weather, every little change has an effect on the hunt. Thankfully, it’s easier nowadays to see what the weather is going to do beforehand. 

One of the best articles I’ve read that describes how deer react to weather patterns is Tyler Ridenour’s from bowhunting360.com

A common sense topic Ridenour hits on is extreme weather. Speaking for West Virginia alone, extremely low temperatures tend to be a trend when you get into gun season. There have been recent seasons with more or less snow and higher temperatures than others. But as Ridenour explains, if a major weather shift hits during bow season – something that has been more prevalent over the years in the mountains and especially the valleys – hunters will see a decrease in activity. 

According to Ridenour, another factor that will determine a successful hunt is barometric pressure. 

“Low pressure generally produces clouds and precipitation, while high pressure usually means nice weather and clear skies. As high-pressure systems move in, the rising air pressure often triggers strong winds. Winds generally start calming as barometric pressures peak,” he writes. 

“I’ve tracked data on barometric pressure for years to see how it affects whitetail movements. My findings support studies I’ve read that show higher deer activity during high pressure, and even more so when the barometer is rising and passing 30. By monitoring forecasts and pressure readings, you’ll better predict when whitetails are most active. You’ll likely document that high-pressure systems spur deer activity after storms and as cold fronts move in.”

(Steve Shaluta/West Virginia Department of Commerce photo)

Moving along to food sources, hard mast is key especially during the early season. If you don’t read the mast reports written by the DNR, one way to see trends is by how many deer are harvested in bow season. 

Simply, if hard mast has a below average yield deer will permeate grassy fields and other local food sources thus creating more opportunity for hunters. If there’s an above average yield, they’ll stick to cover deep in the woods. 

Since 2015, the bow season harvest has seen a 19.5 percent decline, pointing to a high hard mast yield. And, with the global shift in climate, West Virginia has seen fluctuating temperatures and precipitation over the last few years. 

Additionally, since 2015, average temperatures compared to historical temperatures corroborate why mast levels have increased. Below is a breakdown by month. Note, average temperatures have been rounded to the nearest number:

OCTOBER

  • HIGHS: October’s warmest cycle was in 2017, averaging 73 degrees –  5.3 degrees higher than the historic average (67.7). The coldest reads were 68 degrees in 2018 and 2015. Additionally, 2016 averaged 73 degrees highs. 
  • LOWS: October’s coldest cycle was in 2015, averaging 45.9 degrees – 0.5 degrees warmer than the historic average (45.4). The warmest month read at 49 degrees in 2016. Additionally, 2018 averaged 48 degrees lows and 2017 averaged 47 degrees lows. 

NOVEMBER

  • HIGHS: November’s warmest cycle was in 2015, averaging a high of 63 degrees – 6 degrees higher than the historic average (57). The coldest read was in 2018, averaging 51 degrees. Additionally, 2017 averaged 58 degrees highs, and 2016 averaged 60 degrees highs. 
  • LOWS: November’s coldest cycle was in 2018, averaging 34 degrees – 2.9 degrees colder than the historic average (36.9). The warmest month was in 2015, averaging 41 degrees. Additionally, 2017 averaged 35 degrees lows and 2016 averaged 37 degrees lows. 

DECEMBER

  • HIGHS: December’s warmest cycle on average was in 2015, averaging 59 degrees – 13.4 degrees warmer than the historic average (45.6). The coldest month was in 2017, averaging 45 degrees. Additionally, 2018 and 2016 averaged at 48 degrees highs. 
  • LOWS: December’s coldest cycle was in 2017, averaging 27 degrees – 2.2 degrees colder than the historic average (29.2). The warmest read was in 2015, averaging 40 degrees. Additionally, 2018 averaged 32 degrees lows and 2016 averaged 31 degrees lows. 

As for precipitation, the breakdown in inches is as follows: 

MONTH 2018 2017 2016 2015 HISTORIC NORMALS
SEPTEMBER 11.62 2.39 1.84 2.68 3.25
OCTOBER 2.78 4.76 4.10 2.00 2.67
NOVEMBER 4.31 1.62 2.65 1.85 3.73
DECEMBER 5.04 2.29 3.83 5.59 3.27

With this being a small sample size of the year, the full scope of mast production is not seen. However, this window gives an idea of the conditions hunters have experienced over the last four years. With this understanding, it also gives an idea of why the overall deer harvest has declined. 

What’s next?

Clearly, there are many factors that go into wildlife management. For the future of the deer population in West Virginia, there are things that hunters can do to counteract events outside of their grasp, such as the changing climate. 

The first thing is to work to garner interest in the activity. Bringing new hunters into the fold is one of the easiest ways to chip away at the overpopulation. 

The second is to take part in DNR meetings that discuss updating season regulations. If the agency has to put in rules that force hunters to take more than one doe on the three tag system that currently exists, then they should. The agency already proposed adding two extra days to the antlerless harvest in 2018.

If it means lowering the price of extra tags to try and convince hunters to harvest more deer per season, then that should be, at the least, tested. 

Or maybe it means that hunters should take conservation a little more serious than they currently do, and willingly harvest more doe than bucks. 

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