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Deer hunters who have their harvests looked at help state better manage herd

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginians who had their deer weighed, aged and measured at game-checking stations earlier this week are helping state wildlife officials to better manage the whitetail herd.

Every year, Division of Natural Resources officials run a series of what they call "biological check stations" in key areas of the state. For the first three days of the season, DNR personnel become game-checking clerks with greatly enhanced responsibilities.

They record all the usual information - the hunter's name, the date and location of the kill, the sex of the deer and the weapon used - but they also note the overall condition of the deer, its age and whether it shows signs of disease.

In addition, each 11/2-year-old buck gets weighed and has its antler beams measured to determine their diameter.

"It's a major effort," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief. "Virtually all of our game management staff is out working check stations at the start of the buck season. We spread the biological stations out to cover all of our deer management units, and we track the data to see if any trends develop."

For instance, information from biological stations has shown that the average whitetail taken during the buck season is older and has better antlers than deer killed a decade ago.

Wildlife officials attribute the trend to a 1997 regulation change that allows private-land hunters to kill either antlered bucks or antlerless deer during the buck season.

Johansen said spotting such trends allows DNR biologists to tweak hunting regulations to accomplish two goals: Make sure enough deer get killed to avoid overpopulation, and give hunters a better-quality experience.

"In terms of gathering information to manage our deer herd, the three days we spend in the field are probably the most important time we spend all year," he said. "We combine the game-checking data with data gathered from our spotlight counts and with our traditional index of bucks killed per square mile, and the result is a pretty good picture of the overall quality of the deer herd as it relates to the habitat found in each of our management zones."

The recent trend toward older-aged bucks has caused biologists to change the way they work the biological check stations.

"Originally, each station was supposed to gather data from at least 100 [11/2-year-old] bucks," Johansen said. "Now, because so many of the deer being checked are 21/2 years and older, we're actually having a hard time getting 100 'yearling' bucks. So we just get as many as come in over a three-day period."

Johansen outlined a typical biological-station workup:

"First, the deer needs to be checked officially, so we get all the information that a hunter traditionally has to have filled out on a check tag - date, name of hunter, weapon used, location, etc.

"After that, we age the animal by examining the wear on its teeth. Usually we cut the skin of the cheek and pry the jaws open to get a better look, but if the hunter wants to mount the deer we don't cut the skin.

"On bucks, we take data on the antlers' outside spread and beam diameter. And then we look at the overall physical condition of the animal and make comments about any health concerns. We look for hoof lesions, which would indicate that the deer had survived being infected with [epizootic hemorrhagic disease], and we note the presence of deer ticks and other parasites."

Johansen said West Virginia's deer herd, by and large, is "pretty darned healthy."

"Most of the deer we saw this year [at the biological stations] were fat and sassy," he said. "I don't know what guys at other stations saw, but at the station I worked in Raleigh County, we didn't see any deer that had hoof lesions."

Now that this year's biological stations have been run, DNR biologists now must enter all that information into their computer databases and start figuring out what it all means. All that work, representing thousands of deer, must be completed by early- to mid-January so agency officials can devise a framework for the 2013 hunting seasons.

"Deer are a tremendously important resource here in West Virginia," Johansen said. "We want to make sure we do the best job we possibly can do to better manage that resource."

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or e-mail johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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