West Virginia's fall turkey-hunting season is dying a slow death.
For the past several years, hunters have struggled to kill more than 1,000 birds during the season, which ranges in length from one week in some counties to four weeks in others.
Last fall, hunters bagged 1,172 toms and hens - 4 percent more than in 2010, and only slightly below the past six years' average.
Many of you readers remember the halcyon days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when autumn kills in the 15 so-called "traditional" turkey counties routinely totaled three times as many birds as they do today. And if you do remember, chances are you wonder what the heck happened.
Wildlife-related issues are seldom easy to explain, but I'm going to give it a try. Keep in mind that these are merely my opinions, but they're based on scores of conversations with wildlife officials, field biologists and hunters:
In the late '80s and early '90s, fall turkey hunting was restricted to the traditional counties, and most of those are located in or adjacent to the Monongahela and George Washington national forests. Timber cutting was much more common on national forest land back then.
Logging creates clearings in the forest, and clearings contain the "edge habitat" biologists consider vital for turkey reproduction and growth.
As logging declined and timbered areas grew back, the amount of edge habitat diminished. Turkey populations in many of those areas declined, or at best remained static. Those areas form the nucleus of today's fall-season counties.
Habitat loss was only one factor in the fall season's decline. Other factors involved changes in turkey hunters themselves.
Up until 1965, all turkey hunting in West Virginia was done in the fall. That year, the state held its first spring season. Hunters loved it. Birds were easier to locate and gobblers were easier to call within shooting range. By 1983, the spring kill outstripped the fall kill.