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Squirrel outlook a little less bright

John McCoy
In West Virginia, where hardwood forests cover more than two-thirds of the land, squirrels are predictably abundant. Wildlife officials say, though, that a downward fluctuation in the state's acorn crop means a downward fluctuation in the number of squirrels.
West Virginia's squirrel hunters probably won't encounter as many bushytails this fall as they did last fall.That isn't to say, though, that squirrel hunters are in for a poor season. It just won't be as good as the one they enjoyed in 2011.Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said there's a good reason why hunters should lower their expectations a bit."In any given year, squirrel reproduction is tied to the abundance of acorns and other hard mast items the preceding fall," Johansen explained. "In 2010, we had a record-breaking acorn and hard-mast crop, so last year we had an abundance of squirrels. The mast crop wasn't nearly as good last year as it was in 2010, and that translates to poorer squirrel reproduction this year."In this case, "poorer" doesn't necessarily mean "poor.""Last year's mast crop was far from a total bust," Johansen continued. "We did have reproduction this year, and we'll have plenty of squirrels to hunt. We just won't have them in 2011's numbers."He also said hunters shouldn't count on finding many squirrels that survived the 2011 season."Generally speaking, squirrels in the wild don't live all that long," he said. "We don't count on them to 'carry over' like deer. Of all the factors that influence abundance, food conditions the previous year is the driving force."Johansen said it's difficult to predict exactly how well hunters might fare this fall because biologists and wildlife managers haven't yet determined which individual mast crops will be relatively abundant and which will be scarce."It would be nice to know what the hickory and acorn crops are going to be like," he said. "Knowing how much hickory is out there is important because squirrels like to cut hickory nuts first before moving over to beechnuts, acorns and walnuts. If hickory 'hits' this year, that's where people will find squirrels during the early weeks of the season."
And by "early weeks," Johansen means exactly that. For the second straight year, DNR officials have chosen to start the squirrel season on the second Saturday in September instead of the second Saturday in October. This year's hunt begins Sept. 8.DNR officials pushed for the earlier season, primarily to encourage more young people to take up hunting."It was an effort to try to recruit new hunters, particularly youngsters, and to get the squirrel season away from the [deer] archery season a little bit. That way, parents would be free to hunt with their kids for a few weeks instead of spending that time sitting in tree stands," Johansen said.The earlier start, which debuted last fall, created some controversy. Critics said squirrels at that time of year were more likely to be infested with "warbles," botfly larvae that incubate under squirrels' skins. Two retired DNR biologists argued that female squirrels might still be nursing young at that time of year, and their deaths would in turn cause not-yet-weaned offspring to perish.Johansen acknowledged that both those effects were possible, but added that no one had complained about them since the change took place.
"I can only speak anecdotally," he said. "Folks who hunted during the early part of the season last year didn't report large numbers of squirrels with warbles, nor did they report shooting any females that were still lactating. I received zero negative comments after the fact. I think for the most part [the early season] was pretty well received."The DNR's rationale for the season, however, has been diminished. A Natural Resources Commission vote earlier this year moved the archery-season opener up two weeks. Now, instead of five weeks of squirrel hunting before deer hunting starts, sportsmen have just three weeks.DNR biologists didn't ask for the earlier archery season; the idea sprang from the commissioners themselves, and the vote took place without agency input.While he acknowledged that the earlier archery season would likely reduce the time parents squirrel hunt with their kids, Johansen approached the subject philosophically."Oh well," he said. "What can you do? This way, at least the kids will have three weeks of squirrel hunting before the archery season starts. Three weeks is better than the one week they used to have."
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