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Could buck kills be higher?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So this year's buck kill came in at 56,333.

With better weather the total probably would have been higher, but at least the number lived up to wildlife officials' expectations. Before the season began, Division of Natural Resources biologists predicted a kill roughly equivalent to last year's. They came within a tenth of a percent of hitting that number on the proverbial schnozz.

According to the lady who left a voice-mail message for me last week, the total should have been nearly four times higher. She said a friend had told her that hunters "could be killing 200,000 bucks a year if [DNR officials] would only let them."

Let's examine that possibility.

Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief, said the state's pre-season deer herd contains roughly 1 million whitetails.

"And that's a pretty generous estimate," he added. "With the population reductions we've had in recent years, the actual number may be closer to 900,000."

Johansen said the herd almost certainly contains enough bucks to allow a kill of 200,000.

"There likely are that many legal bucks, and from a purely theoretical standpoint, we could remove every one of them at this time of the year and not have a significant biological impact because breeding has already taken place," he added.

"Next year's breeding would be performed by this year's cohort of sub-legal bucks. By next fall, those bucks would be a year and a half old and would be ready and very eager to mate."

Johansen doubts, however, that hunters would be able to kill 200,000 bucks even if DNR officials created regulations to encourage it.

"The reality of removing that many bucks from a state's deer population is far more complicated than the theory of it," he said.

"First, you have to have enough hunters available, and we have fewer hunters in the woods today than we had in the 1990s, when we were killing a lot more bucks."

The state's top two harvests, in 1995 and 1997, produced 100,034 and 102,484 bucks, respectively. Since then, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of resident and non-resident hunters in West Virginia has fallen from 369,000 to 247,000.

For that number of hunters to bag 200,000 bucks, four in every five hunters would have to score. Success rates that high simply don't happen, at least not in real-world, statewide hunts that include both public and private lands.

Not only are there fewer hunters, there are fewer deer. DNR officials consider the annual buck kill per square mile to be their index to the population. In 1997, hunters killed an average of 4.87 bucks per square mile. Last year, they killed 2.45. So, if the DNR's index is indeed accurate, the state has half as many deer today as it did then.

But let's suppose agency officials pulled out all the stops and instituted a month-long buck firearm season and a two-buck-per-day bag limit. If that occurred, could hunters kill 200,000 bucks?

Johansen doesn't think so.

"You'd run up against the law of diminishing returns," he explained. "As you remove more and more bucks from the population, hunters' success rates decline significantly.

"You see this during the second week of the season, when hunters traditionally have a much more time finding and killing bucks. Deer change their behavior; they become much more wary, and a lot less vulnerable to the gun. Hunters get fatigued, too. Hunting becomes a lot less desirable when you aren't seeing bucks."

Given what Johansen said, a buck kill of 100,000 seems highly unlikely. Two hundred thousand seems like fantasy.

 


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