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Not a bad year for W.Va. outdoorsmen

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So ... another year has passed. All things considered, 2013 wasn't a bad year for West Virginia's hunters and anglers. Not bad at all, in fact.

Deer hunters overcame a gosh-awful start and managed to kill more deer than they should have, given the circumstances. Spring turkey hunters enjoyed their best season since 2009.

Fishing, buoyed by one of the wettest summers in recent memory, stayed good almost all year. The state's trout hatcheries were spared the late-summer low-water conditions that usually plague them, and trout production for the 2014 stocking season was good.

There were setbacks, of course.

For reasons known only to nature, the state's oak trees bore unusually few acorns. Oak mast's scarcity affected the fortunes of hunters seeking everything from squirrels and turkeys to deer and bears.

Oak flats, ordinarily excellent places to seek those species, suddenly became locations to avoid. Fortunately for squirrel hunters, banner crops of hickory nuts and beechnuts helped make up for the acorn shortfall. Beechnuts, black cherries and grapes helped sustain turkeys. Beechnuts, apples and crabapples provided at least some forage for deer and bears.

Still, the overarching scarcity of oak mast caused bears to den up earlier than usual. It pushed deer out of the forests and into fields, where they became more vulnerable to hunters and to predators.

Despite that vulnerability, the deer population didn't suffer the dramatic hit some hunters feared it would.

Last spring, when the Natural Resources Commission adopted the most liberal antlerless-deer regulations in state history, critics worried that the state might experience the modern-day equivalent to the Tucker County Buck Wars of the early 1950s, when Legislature-imposed liberal hunting regulations decimated the state's whitetail population.

The tags haven't yet been counted for 2013, but by all accounts the new, more liberal regulations didn't have much impact at all. Wildlife officials expect an antlerless-deer kill similar to 2012's or slightly above it.

A regulation change caused black-bear hunters to harbor unnecessary fears, too. Last spring, when Division of Natural Resources biologists proposed to allow bear hunting during the buck firearm season in 19 counties, an avid bear hunter complained that officials were "giving our bears to the (expletive) deer hunters."

Again, the bear tags haven't yet been counted, but it's likely the acorn failure sent bears into hibernation early enough to soften any potential impact the regulation might have had.

So, all in all, 2013 turned out better than it might have.

Sportsmen's fortunes in 2014 are far less clear. Part of that uncertainty stems from 2013's oak-mast failure. The rest of he acorn shortage's effects are yet to be known, but weather in January, February and March will probably reveal them.

Bitter temperatures and sustained, deep snow cover could cause deer to succumb to winterkill. Female deer that survive the winter in poor physical condition might bear only one fawn instead of the usual two - or, in extreme cases, perhaps none at all.

Also, pregnant sow bears that went into hibernation hungry might reabsorb their fetuses and have no cubs this year. And the lack of acorns almost certainly will keep squirrels from bearing as many young this spring and summer.

Those are worst-case scenarios, of course. The impacts of a mild winter would almost certainly be much less severe.

And if they are, chances are good that 2015's year-in-retrospect column would be even more optimistic.


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