Hunters must adjust to Oct. doe season
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Later this week, West Virginia's deer hunters will do something they'll probably find a little foreign.
They'll hunt for antlerless deer, with rifles, in October.
It's the October part they'll find unusual. Up to now, the earliest firearm seasons for antlerless deer have begun in late November.
Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, acknowledged that it might take hunters a while to get used to the idea.
"We fully recognize it will take people a year or two to get used to the new season," Johansen said. "That's certainly been the case with new seasons we've implemented in the past, and we expect it to be the case this time."
Wildlife officials think hunter participation will increase over time, and believe the season will eventually accomplish what it's designed to do - remove antlerless deer from the population before they have a chance to breed.
"The specific benefit to the deer herd is that it will compress the breeding season," Johansen explained. "When there are too many females in a deer population, the rut gets extended because it takes too much time for bucks to service all the does."
Instead of taking a couple of weeks, the rut can stretch to almost a month. Johansen said an extended rut inevitably leads to an extended birthing season for fawns the following spring - and that's a problem.
"When the fawn drop is spread out over a long period of time, newborn fawns become much more susceptible to predators," he said. "Coyotes and other predators have several weeks to pick fawns off when they're most helpless."
Johansen said predation isn't as great a problem when breeding and fawning seasons take place during shorter time periods.
"The window during which fawns are most helpless becomes compressed," he said. "Predators will always take some fawns, but with a shorter [birthing season] they don't take as many."
Combating predation isn't a shortened rut's only benefit.
"Having fawns come out all at once, and earlier in the year, gives them more weeks to grow during the summer," Johansen said. "That makes them larger and in better condition going into the winter, which helps ensure winter survival."
Yet another benefit to the early antlerless season, Johansen added, is that breeding deer will have more food to eat.
"By removing a significant number of females early on, in the weeks before the rut begins, we'll end up with fewer deer on the landscape during the rut. There will be less competition for acorns and other foods," he said.
Johansen said early antlerless-deer seasons have been tried in other states, and are considered effective at helping wildlife officials create healthier whitetail herds.
"Harvesting female deer is the most important tool wildlife agencies have at their disposal for regulating deer populations," he said. "We're fortunate here in West Virginia to have the ability to suggest regulation changes on an annual basis so we can respond quickly to changes in deer numbers caused by [food shortages], disease, winterkill and other factors.
"This new, earlier antlerless season gives us what we think will be an effective tool for controlling [deer] populations and creating an overall healthier herd."
This year's early season is three days long - Oct. 25-27 - and is open in all counties where antlerless-deer hunting is permitted. Johansen believes hunters will use the early season as an opportunity to put "insurance" venison in the freezer in advance of the late-November firearm buck season.
The early season won't be hunters' only chance to take antlerless deer. The 12-day buck season will be open to antlerless-deer hunting on private lands, and another three-day season specifically for antlerless deer will take place Dec. 13-15.
Missing from the DNR's usual assortment of antlerless-deer opportunities is the six-day "traditional" antlerless season that used to immediately follow the buck season. Wildlife officials shifted the either-sex muzzleloader season into that slot, and split the six-day traditional hunt into the new October hunt and the three-day season in mid-December.
Johansen expects hunters to have mixed feelings about the October segment of the season until they experience it.
"When we surveyed hunters about [the October season] back in March, 57 percent of individual hunters favored it," he said. "Since the season was put into place, I haven't heard of any major issues or concerns about it. I think hunters are curious to see what happens."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.