CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So much for positive indicators.Good weather and a bumper crop of young, foolish deer failed to help West Virginia's whitetail hunters during the recently concluded firearm season for bucks. The kill, which wildlife officials expected to surpass 2011's total, instead fell 6.6 percent under it."We were a little surprised," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "We've been around long enough to know that when you make predictions there's a danger of being wrong, so we weren't shocked. But we were somewhat surprised."DNR officials' preseason prediction calculated that hunters would kill 60,000 to 65,000 bucks during the 12-day late-November hunt. The actual total came in at 56,173 -- down from the previous year's total of 60,157.Johansen said the decline was surprising because weather was good during the crucial first three days of the season, when more than half the bucks usually get killed."It was dry, and overnight temperatures were pretty good," he said. "There was certainly nothing there that would have kept hunters out of the woods."The dry conditions might have caused hunters on the ground to make more noise and possibly spook more deer than usual, but that wouldn't have made that much of a difference in the harvest."DNR officials based their preseason prediction mainly on the high number of 1 1/2-year-old bucks available to hunters. A bumper acorn crop in 2010 triggered a mini population explosion in the spring of 2011, and all the bucks born then would have grown legal-sized antlers by the time the 2012 season started.Johansen said those bucks, though legal, didn't get killed in the numbers biologists had expected. He believes food conditions were a factor.
"I definitely think [an abundance of acorns] played a role," he said. "Our preseason mast survey indicated that the acorn crop was a bit spotty, but where acorns 'hit,' there were lots of them."As a result, deer in most places stayed back in the woods, hanging around those oak flats where the acorns were. Deer weren't out in the field edges as they usually are, and thus were not as vulnerable to the gun."The aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy might also have contributed to the decline."At the time the season opened, lots of downed limbs and trees still had forest roads blocked," Johansen said. "Some hunters, especially in the high-mountain counties, couldn't get to their favorite spots."The harvest decline wasn't exactly statewide. The buck kill actually increased in DNR game-management districts IV and V, the state's southwestern and southeastern counties. The District IV harvest jumped 8 percent and the District V kill rose 2.5 percent.The largest decreases occurred in the state's western and central counties. The kill in west-central District VI plummeted 15 percent. It dropped 10 percent in District III, smack in the center of the state.
Counties with the 10 highest kills were Preston, 2,108; Greenbrier, 1,907; Randolph, 1,792; Mason, 1,667; Jackson, 1,662; Hampshire, 1,570; Monroe, 1,563; Ritchie, 1,518; Wetzel, 1,496; and Hardy, 1,435.Johansen said DNR biologists would have a better handle on exactly what happened once they've had a chance to analyze all the data from the buck harvest and not just the preliminary tag count."After all the data from the check tags get keyed into our computers, we'll be looking at the numbers six ways to Sunday trying to figure out what they're telling us," he said.Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.