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Meeting of DNR biologists key to regulating deer herd

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia wildlife officials call it "the most important meeting we have all year."

Late this month, Division of Natural Resources biologists will hole up in an Elkins meeting room for two days and decide what this year's deer- and bear-hunting seasons will look like.

If the bag limit changes on antlerless deer, chances are the idea was born after district wildlife biologists and wildlife section administrators spent two days poring over reams of harvest data - and debating the merits and demerits of the change.

"It can get pretty intense," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief.

"Dialogue is very open, and discussion flows very freely. Oftentimes there are differences of opinion, and those get shared freely, too. At the end of the day, though, we reach consensus on the regulations we plan to recommend to the [Natural Resources] Commission."

Johansen said last year's meeting was "a classic example" of how the agency's biologists are able to reach consensus after considerable debate.

"Last year, we finished the retooling of our deer operational plan," he said. "The retooling generated quite a number of changes to our regulation package, and as you might guess the changes were heavily discussed."

Fortunately for the biologists, personal opinions influence only a small portion of the decision-making process. Johansen said harvest data are the principal driving force.

"Right now, we have a crew of data entry clerks furiously keying in all the information from every game-checking tag generated during last fall's hunting seasons," he explained.

"The timing of the meeting allows just enough time for all those data to be entered and verified. Once we have solid data to work from, we have the information we need to make sound, science-based management decisions."

Science isn't the sole determining factor, though. With each management decision, wildlife officials must weigh the potential biological impact against the hunting public's willingness to go along with whatever changes the decision creates.

"We always have to make sure to come up with regulatory packages that are acceptable to the public we serve - and to the [Natural Resources Commission members] who must choose whether to approve what we've proposed," Johansen said.

That's one reason the biologists' meeting is held in late January. The NRC traditionally holds its midwinter meeting in February or early March, and the biologists traditionally propose the DNR's regulatory package at the midwinter meeting.

"Just after we make our proposals to the commission, we hold a series of public 'sportsmen's meetings' throughout the state," Johansen said. "The meetings give us a chance to bounce our proposals off the sporting public and to see how much support there is for them. The commissioners take that support into account when they vote on the proposals, usually sometime in early May."

Johansen said the biologists take their late-January meeting "very seriously" because they realize its importance to the state's hunting community.

"There's a lot of data to analyze in a short period of time," he said. "It's no exaggeration to say it's our most important meeting of the year."

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


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