Not that long ago, wild boar hunting was all the rage in Southern West Virginia. Now it's little more than an afterthought.This year's firearm season for boars opened Saturday. It would surprise me if more than a few dozen hunters went gunning for the wary, reclusive animals, even though state wildlife officials believe there are plenty to hunt."We had a record-breaking mast crop last year, and that led to [the boars having] big litters last spring," said Kem Shaw, assistant wildlife biologist for the state's southwestern counties."Our wildlife manager in the area, Steve Houchins, said he's been seeing lots of hog sign. The boars are there. It's just a matter of the hunters finding them."That's been the rub, at least in recent seasons. The portion of West Virginia where boars are most abundant encompasses some of the state's most difficult terrain. In the 1980s and 1990s, when boars were more plentiful, hunters could justify the effort it took to hunt there. But that was then.Division of Natural Resources officials first stocked wild boars into the Spruce Laurel of Logan and Boone counties in 1971."At that time, deer and bears were extremely scarce in that part of the state, and turkeys were nonexistent," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief. "We stocked the boars to create a big-game hunting opportunity in the area."The boars multiplied quickly. Their home range eventually spread more widely into Boone and Logan counties, and even into nearby Raleigh and Wyoming counties.Hunting began in 1979. DNR officials issued only 200 permits, and the first year's harvest totaled just three boars.
As the boar population expanded, so did the number of permits. By the late 1980s, DNR officials allotted 6,000 permits a year simply to keep up with the demand.Boar hunting peaked in 1995, when hunters bagged a record 158 animals. After that, though, Southern West Virginia's hog population suffered a dramatic decline. Harvests tapered off sharply. In 2002, the kill shrank to just 38."There are a lot of theories as to what happened," Shaw explained. "One is that coyotes moved into the area and began killing piglets. Another is that competition for food became more intense as deer, bear and turkey populations expanded."The most likely reason is the amount of mountaintop-removal mining being done. A hog's home range is there one year, and the next year the top of the mountain is gone. It has to have an impact on them."Alarmed by the boars' decline, DNR officials decided in 2003 to reduce hunting opportunities for the species. They shrank the traditional two-part firearm season, held in late October and late December, to a single eight-day October season. At the same time, though, they abandoned the lottery-drawn permit system. Now anyone with a valid big-game license can go boar hunting.The timing of today's season probably works against it. Hunters in southern West Virginia are focused on bowhunting for trophy bucks, not pounding the steep hillsides in search of boar sign.
Still, Shaw believes boar hunting will regain some of its former popularity."The hogs are there, and they're there in pretty decent numbers," he said. "Right now, they're an underutilized resource. If hunters would just take the time to go after them, I have no doubt that harvest totals would increase."I would stress to those hunters that coal companies own almost all the land in the wild-boar area. Hunters who take advantage of that access should be careful to stay away from areas being actively mined."