Mast report shows severe oak decline
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The news isn't good for West Virginia's acorn-dependent wildlife.
"We're looking at an oak mast failure," said Chris Ryan, supervisor of game management services for the state Division of Natural Resources. "This is one of the sparsest acorn crops we've had in the 42 years since we started conducting mast surveys."
Ryan said acorns are scarcer this fall than they were in 2009, a year DNR biologists labeled an "overall mast failure."
The numbers bear Ryan out. White oak is down 57 percent from last year and 38 percent down from the long-term average. Chestnut oak is down 74 from last year and 51 below average. Scarlet oak plummeted 72 percent from last year and is 56 percent below average; and black and red oaks are 62 percent down from last year and are 51 percent below average.
The oak failure worries biologists because so many wildlife species depend on them, and because acorns ordinarily account for most of the food available to animals.
"Oak makes up a majority of the biomass in a lot of places," Ryan explained. "The lack of acorns this fall will affect the hunting seasons for deer, bears, turkeys and squirrels."
Fortunately for all those species, acorns aren't the only food on the menu. Several other important mast items - beechnuts, hickory nuts, walnuts, apples and black cherry - are quite abundant this fall.
Beech, for example, rose a whopping 186 percent from 2012, and is a full 100 percent above the 42-year average. Walnut is up 52 percent from last year and is running 47 percent above average. Hickory is up 51 percent from last year and is 60 percent above average. Apples are up 76 percent from last year and are 28 percent above average. Crabapples are up 77 percent from 2012 and are 29 percent above average; and black cherry rose 79 percent from last year and is up 42 percent from average.
Ryan said the relative abundances of those other species transformed what could have been a catastrophically poor mast year into one that - numerically, at least - is just about average.
"For all mast species combined, the index is 1 percent above our 42-year average," he said. "So food is available. The key to hunters' success will be finding places where food sources are relatively concentrated."
For deer, the mast situation could help lead to a higher kill.
"We're predicting a higher deer archery harvest," Ryan said. "The antlerless-deer kill should be higher, too. We think the buck kill will be similar to last year's, and we're expecting a much better muzzleloader harvest."
If all goes as biologists expect, the mast situation will have its most profound effect on the archery season.
"Here early, there is a tremendous apple crop," Ryan said. "Crabapple and hawthorn are also very good. But if hunters are able to find any oak, they should hunt there out of the gate. During the bow season, deer will be around any trees that have acorns.
"As the season progresses farther into October, hunters should look for late-dropping apple trees. And if there's any beech in the area, deer should still be feeding on beechnuts."
Late in the bow season, after much of the available mast has been consumed, Ryan expects whitetails to move out of the woods and into the edges of fields.
Ryan doesn't expect the acorn shortage to have nearly as much impact on the firearm season for bucks.
"Mast does have a small impact, but hunting pressure is the factor that has the greatest effect on the buck season, especially during the first three days. With this year's opening day falling as late on the calendar as it can [Nov. 25], and with the extreme oak conditions, I think hunters are more likely to see a lot of deer feeding along the edges of fields," he said.
The outlook for bears is a little harder to predict.
"This is one of those tricky years," Ryan said. "Bears will really be on the hickory, and they'll work on it early because there's so little oak. The lack of acorns should help the archery harvest, because bears will be roaming far and wide in search of concentrated food sources.
"The failure of the acorn crop will have an important effect on the traditional December gun season, too. If all the beech and hickory has been consumed by then, bears will go into their dens and the harvest will be reduced. Even so, we're still expecting a record-breaking harvest from the archery and firearm seasons combined."
Turkey hunters, Ryan said, should concentrate on areas where black cherry trees and grapevines are found.
"Black cherry had the highest percentage increase from last year," he explained. "This year's index is 64, which is a 79 percent jump."
His advice to squirrel hunters was similarly simple.
"Squirrels will be working beech and hickory, primarily. What oak is in there, they're on it right now, big-time."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.