Bowhunters in Morgantown are making the city better in at least two ways.
First, they’re almost single-handedly keeping the municipality’s deer population under control. Second, and perhaps more important, they’re helping feed some of the town’s least fortunate citizens.
“We’re not in it for [antlers],” said Paul Crumrine, the Morgantown urban deer hunt’s current coordinator. “We’re in it for meat, and to help the city out.”
Since 2011, a few dozen hunters have been the city’s last line of defense against a whitetail population that had become a major nuisance. Deer were everywhere. They got hit by cars. They destroyed homeowners’ flower gardens and nibbled away at their shrubs.
Today, after eight and a half seasons’ worth of hunting, those problems aren’t nearly as pronounced. More than 600 deer have been killed, and about 75 percent of those were antlerless females that otherwise would have borne one or two fawns the following spring.
Within the first three to four years, the bowhunters managed to bring the population under control. Since then, they’ve been trying to maintain it at roughly the same level.
“I’ve talked to a lot of landowners that have noticed a big difference,” said Rick Bebout, the hunting program’s original coordinator. “People are able to grow flower gardens, young trees and those kinds of things. Areas that were really overpopulated with deer are seeing the benefit of our hunters coming in and taking deer out of the herds.”
Those areas include several tracts owned by West Virginia University, including the university’s farms and the famed Core Arboretum.
“We take six to eight deer off the arboretum’s grounds every year,” Bebout said.
West Virginia’s bowhunters are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on trophy bucks, but Bebout said that isn’t an urban hunter’s primary goal.
“We’ve killed some nice bucks, but the emphasis has been on antlerless deer,” he said.
Under Morgantown’s rules for urban hunting, archers may take up to seven deer, only two of which can be bucks. The first deer taken must be antlerless.
The urban season is long. It begins three weeks before the statewide archery season opens and extends four weeks past the statewide closing date. None of the deer killed during an urban hunt counts against a hunter’s yearly statewide bag limit. Archers are free to take home and eat the deer they kill, but most of the deer are donated to feed underprivileged townspeople.
“Early on, we worked out a mechanism with the city for hunters to donate deer,” Bebout said. “The city pays for the processing, and the meat is ground up into 2-pound packages. We pick up the meat and distribute it to nonprofits that provide meals for the poor, the elderly and the terminally ill.”
A couple of weeks ago, Bebout dropped off 287 pounds of venison to the Community Kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church.
“Since 2011, we’ve donated 7,522 pounds of meat,” he said. “We’re hoping to hit the 8,000-pound mark later this year.”
Kathy Powell, the president of the Community Kitchen’s board of directors, praised the hunters’ effort.
“This meat will enable us to feed many, many hungry people,” she said. “It’s lean, very healthful, and it will go a long way.”
Powell said the kitchen’s cooks use the ground venison in several staple dishes — “for spaghetti sauce, chili, hot dog sauce, and really anything else we’d use ground beef for.”
The meat goes a long way.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how many meals we’ll be able to make from [the most recent shipment],” she said. “Suffice to say, we’ll get many, many days’ worth of meals from it. Folks love it.”
Bebout said Morgantown city leaders were reluctant at first to enlist hunters to thin the herd, but agreed once safeguards were put in place.
“The number of hunters is limited,” Bebout said. “Right now, we have about 65 hunters participating. If one of [them] chooses not to participate and drops off the active list, we usually have people on a waiting list to fill the slot.”
To qualify, a hunter must take a one-day National Bowhunter Education Foundation safety course, and must also pass an archery proficiency test.
“Participants are assigned specific spots to hunt,” Bebout said. “They can swap spots with other hunters. Everybody is on the same page. The city police know who is supposed to be hunting, and where.”
Hunters are urged stay out of sight and to prevent the public, as much as possible, from seeing dead or wounded deer.
“When we first started, the townspeople were very nervous [about urban hunting],” Bebout recalled. “Very quickly, we were able to win the public’s support. To date, we have a 100 percent safety record.”
He said some of the hunters have alerted police to illegal activity going on in the city, “things like homeless camps in parks, illegal squatters, and tree stands and blinds put up illegally by poachers.”
Crumrine said hunters will “make every effort to maintain the goodwill we’ve built up.”
“Even now, we know that some people in the town might be opposed to hunting, so we try to do everything by the book,” he said. “It would only take one bad incident to mess everything up.”