CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Deer, bears, squirrels and other game animals will have a little more to eat this fall than they did in 2011.
Division of Natural Resources biologists recently finished the agency's annual Mast Report and Hunting Outlook, and it includes both good news and bad news.
The primary good news is that the overall statewide abundance of wild game foods is up about 5 percent over the 42-year average and 14 percent over 2011's crop. The primary bad news is that acorns were the only major mast item that came in significantly above average.
Here's how the various oak species broke out:
White oak is 206 percent more abundant than it was last year, and 45 percent above the long-term average;
Chestnut oak is 360 percent more abundant than it was last year, and 89 percent above average;
Black and red oaks are 60 percent more abundant than they were last year, and 29 percent above average;
Scarlet oak is also 60 percent more abundant than it was last year, and 58 percent above average; and
Scrub oak is 20 percent less abundant than it was last year, and 23 percent below average.
The news for the other highly important mast species - beechnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, black cherries and grapes - isn't nearly as encouraging. For example:
Black cherry increased a whopping 378 percent from last year. Unfortunately, that's not saying much. Cherry was so scarce last year that even this year's slight increase looks huge. Overall, the amount of cherry is still 21 percent below average.
Beech is 60 percent less abundant than it was last year, and 30 percent below average;
Walnut is 37 percent less abundant than it was last year, and 3 percent below average;
Hickory is 18 percent more abundant than it was last year, and 6 percent above average; and
Grapes are 12 percent less abundant than they were last year, and 6 percent below average.
Minor mast items that came in above average were dogwood, up 26 percent; and sassafras, up 8 percent. Below-average minor mast items include yellow poplar, down 10 percent; hawthorn, down 9 percent; crabapple, down 27 percent; blackberry, down 21 percent; greenbrier, down 12 percent; and apple, down 27 percent.
Keep in mind, though, that statewide numbers such as the ones outlined in this column can sometimes be deceptive. All mast items tend to be abundant in some geographic areas and scarce in others.
For instance, hickory came in 30 percent above average in the state's Ecological Region 3, but fell 22 percent below average in Ecological Region 4. Region 3 includes most of the counties in southern, southwestern and south-central West Virginia. Region 4 includes all the counties along Interstates 79 and 68 from Braxton County on to the northeast, with Barbour, Tyler and Upshur counties thrown in for good measure.
So what does all this mean?
In areas where acorns are really abundant, deer and bear hunters will find it tougher to locate their quarry. When deer have protein-rich acorns easily at their disposal, they become much more difficult to bait with corn, which is mostly carbohydrate and doesn't provide nearly as much nutrition.
Baiting for bears is illegal, but a big acorn crop still affects the bear harvest. When bears have plenty of acorns to eat, hunters during the December firearm season tend to fare substantially better than archery-season hunters. With so many acorns at their disposal, bears scatter widely during the bow season. In December, they stay out of their dens longer than usual, packing in calories for the coming hibernation, and are more easily taken by firearm-wielding hunters.