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Hunters’ habits sometimes slow to change, DNR says

JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Sportsmen killed more antlerless deer last year than they did in 2012, and wildlife officials believe the increase can be traced, at least in part, to hunters’ adjustment to changes in the season structure instituted in 2012.

West Virginia’s hunters appear to have adjusted to changes in the state’s deer-hunting seasons.

Kill figures from the 2013 October antlerless-deer season and early-December muzzleloader season indicate that sportsmen embraced enthusiastically the same seasons they had avoided the year before.

In 2012, the first year of the October antlerless season, hunters killed 3,585 deer, far fewer than state wildlife officials had hoped. Last year, the total jumped to 8,557. The muzzleloader season — which fell to 5,385 in 2012 when the season began a week earlier than usual — returned to near-normalcy in 2013 when hunters bagged 7,739 whitetails.

Gary Foster, game management supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources, attributed the increases to sportsmen adjusting their “hunting calendars” to accommodate new or changed seasons.

“I think the rebounds in both those harvests are evidence that people got used to [the changed seasons],” he said.

“We [DNR officials] were all somewhat disappointed in those first-year harvests, but we knew that during the first year for a regulation change, it’s not uncommon for hunters to be slow to adjust. We hoped to see [the harvests] increase significantly [in 2013], and they did.”

One theory for hunters’ lack of participation in 2012 centers on the importance West Virginians place on their annual deer-hunting plans.

Many Mountain State residents adjust their vacation and personal-leave days to accommodate their hunting schedule, and sometimes employers ask their hunter-employees to set vacation schedules in January or February so the company doesn’t get left in the lurch when hunting season rolls around.

In 2012, hunters had no idea DNR officials planned to establish an October antlerless season or move the muzzleloader season forward a week. The proposals didn’t get floated until the Natural Resources Commission’s February meeting and didn’t get approved until the May meeting.

Foster said hunters didn’t learn about the season changes until well after they’d had to solidify their vacation plans, and therefore couldn’t participate.

“I think that was at least part of what contributed to the lower-than-expected harvests for those seasons,” he added. “People got caught a little off-guard.”

Johansen said the ability of the DNR and the Natural Resources Commission to adjust seasons from year to year can be both a blessing and a curse.

“In many other states, regulations can only be adjusted every two years,” he explained. “One of the positive aspects of our regulation system is we can be nimble and make changes very quickly. The down side is that we do sometimes make changes quickly. For people who have to make vacation schedules well in advance, that can be a problem.”

Johansen and Foster both believe that the months between the 2012 and 2013 October antlerless-deer seasons gave hunters time to plan their 2013 hunts more strategically. “A lot of counties [for the 2013 season] were ‘special regulation’ counties where hunters were required to take an antlerless deer before they were allowed to kill a second buck,” Foster said. “I think a lot of hunters decided to hunt during the October season and fill that antlerless tag so they could concentrate on antlered deer during the buck season.”

Johansen said that was exactly what DNR officials had in mind when they created the October season.

“We were hoping that would be the thought process hunters would follow, and that they would end up taking additional antlerless deer in areas where it was most appropriate,” he said. “The overall antlerless harvest went from 45,010 in 2012 to 56,636 in 2013, so I think hunters accomplished what we hoped they would.”

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