I’m concered about what the preliminary whitetail deer harvest numbers are going to show in West Virginia. Since 2008, the Mountain State has seen a steady decrease in harvested deer – something I’ve touched on before – and after speaking to fellow hunters since bowseason opened in September, I have a gut feeling that trend is continuing.
Several factors play into this, but I’d like to touch on two that I think are the most important.
First, younger people aren’t taking up hunting to replace the older folk who pass away or stop hunting because of age. Those who are still hunting are killing more buck than doe, causing the overall population to increase over carrying capacity. This is likely a remnant mindset of when hunters were told to kill less doe to help the population grow, but it’s a major problem when looking at the growing concern of Chronic Wasting Disease and vehicular accidents caused by deer. Another thing that’s pushing hunters out of the woods is the weather and land accessibility.
Speaking of weather patterns, in recent years, hard mast has increasingly been abundant. Non-hunters would imagine this would bring more deer into the range of a hunter, but when deer are eating more hard mast, they tend to stay in deep cover. This, in turn, affects private landowners who like to set up ground blinds over those expensive food plots as opposed to still hunt. When deer don’t need to go to a food plot laden with corn and clover in November and December, not only does it hurt a hunter’s wallet, it hurts the harvest. Is the solution to begin still hunting? Sure, if you have enough acres to do so, but I’d wager most don’t have those acres. I find the 70 acres I hunt in Pennsboro hard to navigate sometimes.
Warm weather also affects bedding habits. If it’s not sub-30s, the window to harvest a deer in the late season shrinks to the hour after sunrise and before sunset. I know that’s something a lot of our dads or brothers taught us when the deer are ripe for the picking, but I noticed when I started hunting in 2014 that I could wait usually until right before noon before heading in. Five years later, I’m still waiting until lunchtime but not seeing the frequency of deer I did those first few years.
Going back to the land: We’re beginning to see each year more land being purchased for development or personal homes. I’m not against development, as long as it’s smart and helps the community, but it does sometimes hurt hunters. Pair that with the increasing trend of anti-hunting groups, and it can get messy in some states. One upside is that I haven’t heard of anything like that happening in our state. Plus, I’ve noticed urban hunts are becoming more popular, which benefits bowhunters.
And then we hit on the fact that young people just aren’t picking up the sport of hunting. Whether it’s squirrel, deer or waterfowl, I’m constantly reminded by my hunting groups and sometimes others in the community I’m one of the younger ones they see.
There could be a lot of things that keep young people away from hunting. Maybe their parents aren’t into it, or maybe they’re too busy with other sports. It could also be because some people hit an age where they want to hunt, but don’t have anyone to take them. That’s a serious problem, but not a new one. Some people are trying to fix this, like the R3 movement which stands for recruit, retain and reactivate. The success rate isn’t readily available, but even if five people stick with hunting and share it with their friends, it’s a success in my eyes. Let’s face it, if sportsman’s license sales continue to decline there’s going to be a detrimental lack of funding for wildlife conservation.
One good thing Gov. Jim Justice did for hunters in the state was hold a charity antlerless hunt at Stonewall Resort for Hunters Helping the Hungry. The “Governor’s One-Shot Hunt” was established to help HHH, a program that cannot be funded by sportsman’s license monies and relies on donations. This could be a major factor in recruiting more hunters who may not want to “get messy” since donated deer are completely handled by processors. Before the charity hunt was established, hunters in 2018 donated the “highest amount of meat since 2013 that went to create 32,000 additional meals” according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt. The numbers from the charity event aren’t available yet, but I hope it was successful so it can continue.
But even with that, I’m still worried about the preliminary numbers that will come out soon. It’s a sad trend we’re witnessing, not just in West Virginia, but around the country. Please, before the 2019 season closes in West Virginia, consider taking some doe.
This column was published in The Dominion Post on Dec. 7, 2019. The Dominion Post is the largest newspaper in north central West Virginia and is located in Morgantown, W.Va.