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Setting deer-hunting regulations 'a huge undertaking'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Setting the regulations for West Virginia's deer-hunting season requires fast action and even faster thinking.

Each winter, wildlife biologists must collect a vast amount of information, analyze it, decide how many deer should be killed the following fall, and create a set of hunting regulations designed to get at least that many deer killed.

"It's a huge undertaking, and it has to be done in a relatively short time," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "It requires a lot of work from a lot of people."

Counting the tags

The process begins when biologists from the DNR's six management districts collect deer tags from the many game-checking stations scattered throughout the state.

"We make our first collection before the buck firearm season begins, so we can start entering data from the first two months of the archery season," Johansen said. "We collect again at the end of the buck season, and again at the end of December after all the antlerless-deer seasons have concluded."

The biologists who collect the tags take them home and hand-sort them by county, by sex of the animal killed, and by method of harvest. During the season just concluded, more than 150,000 tags had to be classified and counted.

As soon as they finish hand counting, the biologists drive the collected tags to the DNR's Elkins Operations Center and turn them over to a crew of data-entry operators.

"The data on every tag - sex of the animal, date and county - get keyed in using fast-entry operation software. Once all the information is entered, I import it into a database and start cleaning it up," said Randy Tucker, the DNR's chief biometrician.

Scrub, rinse, repeat

By "cleaning it up," Tucker means he runs a battery of quality checks to make sure none of the information was entered incorrectly.

"For instance, when you have a season that ends on a Saturday, it's legal to check the deer in on Sunday," he explained. "I go through and clean up the dates so they coincide with the proper seasons."

Tucker also checks to make sure kills were legitimate.

"There are a number of things we check - if the animal was killed on an odd date, it could have been a keypunch error or the hunter or game-check clerk writing down the wrong date. If it was a buck killed during a doe season, that's a red flag; either it wasn't a buck or the date was wrong," he said.

Such discrepancies are rare. Tucker said it's unusual to get more than a dozen a year, and usually the district biologists are able to clear up any inconsistencies.

Tucker credited the DNR's data-entry operators, a team of three to four highly experienced women, for maintaining that level of accuracy.

"They spend close to two months inputting all the check-tag information," he said. "In addition to keying in the deer information, they also key in the tags for turkeys, bears, bobcats and otters. Their work is labor-intensive, but it immediately gives us the information we need to make good wildlife-management decisions."

Crunching the numbers

Data entry usually wraps up around mid-January. After Tucker cleans the information, which usually requires a few days, he sends the accumulated databases to the DNR's game management staff and to all the district biologists.

In late January, the management team meets to pore over the mountain of accumulated data. Gary Foster, the DNR's game management supervisor, explained the process.

"There's a lot that goes into it," he said. "For each county - and sometimes for different parts of counties - we look at the number of bucks killed per square mile, which we consider our index overall deer numbers. We also look at the available habitat, the number of crop-damage permits being issued, the number of deer-vehicle collisions that have taken place, population data from our spotlight surveys, and deer-health information gathered from our biological check stations."

The key number is the buck kill per square mile. The DNR's deer-management plan assigns each county a target harvest rate that usually ranges from 3.0 to 3.5 bucks per square mile, but can be lower for counties with poor habitat.

To keep unusual weather or mast conditions from creating wild, year-to-year swings in deer regulations, agency biologists average the results of the past two buck seasons and base their management decisions on those numbers.

"So, if we have a goal of 3.5 bucks per square mile and hunters are harvesting 5.0, we know the population in that county is too high and that the next season's antlerless-deer regulations for that county should be more liberal," Foster explained.

"On the other hand, if the goal is 3.5 and we're harvesting 2.5, we know we may need to be more restrictive on the antlerless-deer regulations."

A computer spreadsheet does the biologists' heaviest lifting.

"It compares the two-year buck-harvest average as it relates to our buck-harvest objective for the county," Foster said. "Then it uses a population growth curve to determine how many antlerless deer need to be harvested to bring the population in line with our objective."

The devil, as always, is in the details, and the DNR's game management staff spend days adjusting and tweaking the regulations based on any special circumstances that might exist in a given county.

The final steps

Decisions have to be made quickly. The DNR's recommendations for each fall's antlerless-season regulations must be ready in time for the Natural Resources Commission's midwinter meeting. This year's meeting is scheduled for Feb. 23.

After the commission meeting, DNR officials take the proposals before the public at a series of mid-March "sectional meetings." Members of the commission take input from hunters and landowners into account before they approve, disapprove or tweak the DNR's recommendations. The commission's vote on the proposals always takes place at its spring meeting, usually held in late April or early May.

"From end to end, the process takes six months," said assistant wildlife chief Johansen. "But the time between the end of December and the commission meeting is when most of the action takes place. It takes a lot of work from a lot of people, but every year we manage to get it done."

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


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