West Virginia’s recovery from 20th-century environmental abuses has made the state’s rivers and forests a much better place for fish and wildlife to live.
“From a hunter’s perspective, we are in the ‘good old days’ right now,” said Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources’ chief of wildlife resources. “In terms of habitat quality, species health and overall recreational opportunity, we’re in an almost-ideal situation.”
Today, West Virginia ranks as the nation’s second most heavily forested state. Johansen said that wasn’t always the case.
“Back in the early 1900s, West Virginia was only about 50 percent forested,” he explained. “Now, we’re up to about 78 percent, and most of that is healthy, mature forest.”
Expansion of woodland habitat has been great for forest-oriented species, such as white-tailed deer, black bear and wild turkey.
“For example, in 1968, the statewide overall deer harvest was 10,547,” Johansen said. “Last year, it was 108,856. We were able to expand the deer population from that low number by cutting back on the harvest of antlerless deer.
“We were tremendously successful — maybe too successful,” Johansen said. “We perhaps let the population expand beyond the land’s ability to support it. Once we reached that point, we put in much more liberal antlerless-deer regulations that brought the population back to a more appropriate level. It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well.”
In 1972, Johansen added, the statewide black bear kill numbered just 91 animals. Last year, hunters bagged 2,606.
“Our bear population back in the mid-to-late 1970s was about 500,” he continued. “Now we estimate it’s between 12,000 and 14,000.”
Another forestland species, wild turkey, showed similar gains.
“The spring harvest in 1969 was 243 birds,” Johansen said. “This past spring, it was 11,210.”
Wildlife officials were able to expand the bear population by making one minor tweak in the hunting regulations.
“We moved the opening date of the firearm season back just long enough to allow sow bears to begin hibernation and become unavailable to hunters,” Johansen explained. “The bear population has expanded ever since.”
With turkeys, DNR biologists took a more hands-on role. They trapped birds from areas of relative abundance and moved them to areas from which turkeys had been extirpated.
“According to my numbers, we had 62 stockings that relocated 2,262 birds into 32 counties,” Johansen said. “Now we have turkeys in all 55 counties, and they have done extremely well. It’s a tremendous success story for conservation, not only here in West Virginia, but across the country.”
To rebuild some wildlife populations that had been eliminated due to habitat loss and overhunting, DNR officials obtained animals from other states and reintroduced them.
For example, fishers — woodland predators related to weasels — were brought back to the state in the late 1960s. An initial stocking of just 23 fishers in Tucker and Randolph counties has translated to healthy fisher populations today in 35 of the state’s 55 counties.
As water quality improved and fish populations grew, biologists saw an opportunity to bring fish-loving river otters back to the state. Between 1984 and 1997, DNR crews released 245 otters in 14 watersheds throughout the state.
“They’ve done extremely well,” Johansen said. “By 2011, we had enough otters to open a trapping season.”
The state’s highest-profile wildlife restoration effort has been focused on elk. In 2016 and 2018, DNR crews released 85 elk obtained from Kentucky and Arizona. Johansen said the population currently hovers between 90 and 95 animals, which should increase after the calving season ends in late June.
“This was a major restoration effort,” Johansen said. “One major factor in its success are the reclaimed surface-mine lands the elk have been placed on. A lot of those sites benefited from the Surface Mine Reclamation Act, and companies still reclaiming mines in the Elk Management Zone have been very receptive toward modifying their grass-seed mixes to help support the elk we’ve stocked.”
Fish also have benefited from the state’s environmental comeback.
Mark Scott, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of fisheries, said much of the credit should go to federal and state regulations put into place in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce or eliminate pollution.
“Regulations definitely helped,” he added. “Things have been tightened up over the years. Even with recent relaxations of some regulations, we haven’t gone back to the Wild West days, when companies could do anything they wanted to. Our Department of Environmental Protection has done a great job.”
Scott, who spent 29 years as a fisheries biologist in the state’s southern counties, said the state’s rivers and streams are cleaner now than he’s ever seen them.
“Speaking from experience, there was a time when we routinely had several fish kills every year,” he continued. “In the last 10 to 15 years, the number of kills has been reduced quite a bit. Now they’re usually because someone has dumped something illegally or there’s an accidental spill of some kind. It’s no longer the willful neglect it used to be.”
Scott said that when he began his career in the 1980s, schoolchildren from southern West Virginia who drew streams in class would color them orange, polluted by acid mine drainage.
“The coal industry has now left a lot of those watersheds, and nature has reclaimed things,” he added. “Some of those streams now have good fishing for trout and smallmouth bass.
“Fifty years ago, in the Kanawha River, about the only thing you could catch was carp and bullheads. Now the Kanawha is one of the best mixed-bag fisheries in the state. You have largemouth and smallmouth bass, hybrid striped bass, walleye, sauger, muskie and three species of catfish. The bounceback has been pretty spectacular on major rivers like the Kanawha, the Ohio and the Monongahela.”
In streams too acid-damaged to come back on their own, DNR officials have treated the watersheds with limestone sand. Many of those streams now harbor thriving wild-trout populations.
“Overall, the state’s waters are a far cry better now than they were 50 years ago,” Scott said. “There are places where we could do a better job, but overall, I think we’re doing pretty well.”