CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's 2012 buck-kill decline might have had as much to do with hunters' attitudes as it did with physical conditions.
So thinks Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. In analyzing why the buck kill fell from 60,157 in 2011 to 56,173 during the recently concluded buck firearm season, Johansen said hunters appear to have spurned chances to take young, small-antlered bucks in favor of older, bigger-racked whitetails.
"We haven't had a chance yet to break down the exact numbers, but based on what we saw at our biological [game-checking] stations, hunters were bringing in more 2 1/2-year-old deer and fewer 1 1/2-year-olds," he explained.
Johansen thinks the trend is a little unusual because young bucks dramatically outnumbered older ones when the season opened in late November.
A bumper acorn crop in 2010 allowed deer to have remarkable reproductive success in the spring of 2011. Bucks born then would not have had legal-sized antlers in 2011, but should have been at least spikes or four-pointers by the time the 2012 season started.
"There were a lot of [1 1/2-year-old] bucks out there, but for whatever reason hunters didn't take advantage of their numbers the way they have in the past," Johansen said.
Twenty years ago, Mountain State hunters killed 85 to 90 percent of all available 1 1/2-year-old bucks. Nowadays the percentage is closer to 50 percent.
"When I was out at my check station this year, a lot of guys told me they had passed up taking spikes and forkhorns and had held out for bucks with larger racks," Johansen said.
"They probably did that 20 years ago too, but when it got late in the season and they still hadn't filled their tags, they settled for spikes or four-pointers. Today, in a lot of counties, they have the option of taking does instead of small bucks. Bottom line is, a lot of guys seem to be letting small bucks walk and instead are taking does for the freezer."
Johansen acknowledged that his theory is based on conjecture, not on hard data.
"I don't think any of the biological data we gather would help to substantiate that," he said. "I think we would need sociological data - such as the data we would get from an opinion survey - to see if hunters really are doing what we think they're doing."
If the trend truly is a trend, Johansen believes percentage of younger-aged bucks taken by hunters might continue to decline.
"If that happens, it would stand to reason that the number of older-aged bucks would continue to rise," he said. "I think hunters would enjoy that."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1231.