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DNR 'pretty pleased' with fall hunting results

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With one notable exception, West Virginia wildlife officials were quite pleased with sportsmen's success during last fall's major hunting seasons.

The state's overall deer kill jumped 14 percent. The bear kill, despite less-than-ideal conditions, stayed at near-record levels. Only the fall turkey kill, which fell 20 percent, failed to live up to expectations.

"Overall, we're pretty pleased," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "A few days of adverse weather and a poor acorn crop had us worried a bit, but in the end our sportsmen enjoyed quite a successful year."

Deer hunters ended up killing 150,268 whitetails, almost 18,000 more than in 2012. Somewhat surprisingly, the buck firearm season - which ordinarily accounts for the largest percentage within the overall harvest - took a secondary role in 2013.

The buck kill came in at 57,028, a smidgen higher than the previous year's total, despite terrible weather on the season's second and third days.

"That total was a pleasant surprise," Johansen said. "With the weather as bad as it was early in the season, we weren't expecting a harvest comparable to 2012's, but we ended up getting it."

The antlerless-deer kill pleased DNR officials even more than the buck harvest. The antlerless total of 57,350 represented a 28 percent increase from the previous year, and a 24 percent increase from the five-year average.  More important, the antlerless kill topped the buck kill - a goal that biologists had been working toward for years.

"This fits in with our management plan, because our goal is to reduce deer populations in areas where they are too high, and killing sufficient numbers of antlerless deer is the best way to accomplish that," Johansen explained.

Another bright spot was the muzzleloader kill. Blackpowder enthusiasts bagged 7,316 whitetails, a whopping 37 percent jump from the previous year's total.

"This was the second year of a major framework change to the muzzleloader season," Johansen said. "In 2012, we moved the muzzleloader season up a week and moved the traditional antlerless season into the muzzleloader season's former slot. The harvest fell off sharply last year, and we believe it was because hunters hadn't adjusted to the new framework. This year, it appears they made the adjustment. This year's kill was almost up to the five-year average."

Bowhunters also enjoyed a good year. The archery kill jumped 11 percent to 28,574, roughly 6 percent higher than the five-year average.

"We didn't find the archery total terribly surprising," Johansen said. "Archers tend to do a lot of preseason scouting. The lack of mast this year made it easier for them to predict where the deer would be."

DNR officials went into the fall of 2013 fully expecting bear hunters to break the existing harvest record of 2,691. Instead, they fell nine short.

Chris Ryan, the agency's supervisor of game management services, nevertheless declared victory.

"Considering the mast conditions, we were very happy with the number we got," he said.

Biologists' bold prediction of a new harvest record took place before they found out about the severe acorn shortage. Once mast conditions became clear, they grew concerned that hungry bears might choose to den up earlier than usual and be unavailable to hunters during the traditional December firearm season.

The fears went largely unfounded.

Hunters took 679 bruins during the September-October firearm season, 851 during the archery season, 361 during the late-November concurrent bear-buck season, and 791 during the December firearm season.

"The archery kill was higher than expected because of the acorn shortage," Ryan said. "But the bear-buck kill and the traditional kill also came in better than we expected, given the acorn situation."

Most of the bears killed during those seasons were taken in the state's high mountains, where acorns weren't as scarce

"Most of the places where acorns 'hit' were above 2,500 feet in elevation," Ryan explained.

"Those happen to be in counties open during the traditional firearm season, and in counties where the new bear-buck regulations were in place. Bears in those counties had more to eat, so they stayed out of their dens later and were more available to hunters."

DNR officials' lone disappointment came from the fall turkey season. Hunters bagged just 1,013 birds, 20 percent fewer than in 2012 and 12 percent below the five-year average.

Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief, believes turkey hunters have lost interest in the fall hunt.

"It's a party no one comes to anymore," he said. "This year we had more counties open to fall hunting than we've ever had during modern times, but for some reason hunters chose not to participate."

Taylor believes hunters who once hunted turkeys in the fall are now focusing on other species.

"Before we had a lot of deer in the state, people hunted turkeys," he said. "Now that we have a lot of deer, turkeys aren't much of a draw anymore."

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


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