At this time of year, it's natural for West Virginians to be concerned when they see bright lights shining in the woods.
Late summer is when buck deer begin losing the velvet off their antlers, and as soon as the velvet is off the bucks become prime targets for poachers. Because bright lights cause deer to freeze in their tracks - thus becoming easy targets - poachers often do their dirty work at night, using powerful hand-held spotlights.
Fortunately for the state's deer herd, landowners and concerned citizens tend to report spotlighting any time they see it taking place.
Look for the number of spotlighting reports to go up sharply this fall - not because poachers will be running especially rampant, but because state wildlife officials have decided to use spotlights to help them perform a deer census.
Division of Natural Resources workers will conduct spotlight surveys in 41 of the state's 55 counties. They'll use a technique biologists call "spotlight distance sampling."
Here's how it works:
Crews will drive along roads at night in cars and will shine lights into the woods in search of deer. The vehicles involved will be prominently marked with reflective signs that indicate deer survey work is being done.
"When these crews encounter groups of deer, they will stop their vehicles and use rangefinders and special measuring devices to calculate the angle at which the deer were seen from the road," said Paul Johansen, the DNR's assistant wildlife chief. "Later, using trigonometry, a computer will determine the size of the area from which the sample was made, and from that the computer will calculate the area's deer density."
Johansen said DNR biologists have been using the technique, albeit sparingly, for several years.
"We've used it to determine deer densities on some of our older-age deer management areas such as the Bluestone and McClintic wildlife management areas," he explained. "This is the first time we're going at it from a statewide perspective."
He hastened to add that no deer would be shot during the surveys, and that crews would not enter private land.
"Previously, and always with landowners' permission, we've done surveys where we killed and collected the deer for tissue samples," he said. "Those surveys were done in Hampshire County, where we needed to test for chronic wasting disease. The current spotlight surveys are nothing like that. We won't be shooting deer. We'll only be counting them."
Crews have been doing the surveys for more than a week now, and Johansen said the effort would continue through mid-September.
"We've been trying to get the word out so people would be able to recognize these crews for what they are and not mistake them for poachers," he said.
"We're aware that West Virginians have a natural concern about spotlighting and potential illegal activity. We've gone out of our way to get in touch with local communities, notifying the news media and handing out flyers so folks will know what we're doing."
Spotlight surveying requires some pretty sophisticated training. Johansen said the DNR brought in a nationally recognized authority on the technique to conduct the training.
"And the training was pretty extensive," he said. "We'll be using this technique a lot more. We believe it will give us much more detailed information about our deer population.
"In the past we'd always used the buck harvest per square mile in each county as an indicator of population size. With spotlight distance sampling, we'll be able to get a better idea of deer populations within specific areas of a given county."