Mast crop declines sharply
Last year's record-shattering acorn crop is officially a thing of the past.
West Virginia's oak trees aren't bearing nearly as many nuts this year as they did in 2010, wildlife officials say. In fact, the Division of Natural Resources' annual Mast Survey and Hunting Outlook says the 2011 statewide acorn crop is coming in 61 percent lower than last year's and 37 percent lower than the long-term average.
For squirrel hunters, archery-season bear hunters and deer hunters from all seasons, that's good news. The overall scarcity of acorns will concentrate squirrels, deer and bears in those areas where acorns are relatively abundant. Hunters who take the time to find those "food pockets" should have no trouble finding game.
For firearm-season bear hunters and next year's squirrel hunters, the lack of oak mast is bad news. When acorns are scarce, bears hibernate early and aren't as available to hunters during the traditional December firearm season. Squirrels go into the winter months hungry and don't bear as many offspring the following year.
Not all nut-bearing trees fared as poorly as oaks. Beechnuts are 131 percent more abundant this year than last year, and are running 76 percent above the long-term average. Black walnuts are up 78 percent over last year and 55 percent over the long-term average.
But those, along with dogwood (a 'soft-mast' species, up 31 percent) were about the only bright spots.
The amount of black cherry, for example, plummeted 90 percent from 2010's index. Hickory fell off 22 percent, white oak 73 percent, chestnut oak 80 percent, black or red oak 49 percent, scarlet oak 39 percent, scrub oak 18 percent and sassafras 38 percent.
The sharp declines prompted the survey's authors to write, "This year's mast crop may remind many of the dismal mast crop of 2009." Year-to-year declines were steep then, too. The authors suggested that hunters instead compare this year's numbers to the long-term average, which extends from 1970 to the present.
"Comparisons to the 41-year average should give us a tempered result that is more representative of the true mast condition," they wrote.
Representative, but still not pretty: Black cherry down 84 percent, hickory 10 percent, white oak 53 percent, chestnut oak 59 percent, black or red oak 19 percent, greenbrier 14 percent and sassafras 37 percent.
Based on those numbers, the biologists predicted increases in the deer, squirrel, grouse, raccoon and wild boar harvests; a lower bear harvest; and a turkey harvest roughly similar to slightly higher than 2010's.
The complete mast report is available on the DNR's website, www.wvdnr.gov. To find the survey, click on the "Main Page" link under the Hunting heading and then click on the "2011 Mast Survey and Hunting Report" link on the Hunting Main Page.
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.