West Virginia’s big-game hunters will probably see substantial changes in their deer, bear and wild boar seasons this fall.
State wildlife officials have proposed new season structures for bowhunters and muzzleloader hunters, both of which would allow hunting to continue after the traditional closing day on Dec. 31. They also would like to split the seasons for wild boar and urban deer so they, too, continue into the following year.
Division of Natural Resources biologists made the proposals at Sunday’s quarterly meeting of the West Virginia Natural Resources Commission, the seven-member panel of political appointees who set the state’s hunting and fishing seasons and bag limits. Commissioners took the proposals under advisement and will approve or disapprove them at their next meeting on April 22.
The most substantial proposed change is the creation of a new combined deer-and-bear hunt, dubbed the “Mountaineer Heritage Season.” The three-day season, scheduled for Jan. 10-13, 2019, would be open only to hunters willing to use primitive weapons, such as longbows, recurve bows, flintlock firearms and sidelock firearms. Modern compound bows, crossbows and in-line muzzleloaders would not be allowed.
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s wildlife chief, said there are three primary benefits to holding the heritage season and parts of other big-game seasons in January and February.
“One, it gets us out of an incredibly compacted, congested fall schedule [of hunting seasons],” he said. “Right now, we have so many big-game seasons packed into a short amount of time. Spanning into January gives us much more flexibility.
“Another factor is to provide additional days of recreation through big-game hunting. One of the DNR’s main objectives is to provide for public recreation.
“And finally, this encourages sportsmen and sportswomen to purchase hunting licenses early in the year. If we encourage that purchase early in the year, hunters are much more likely to participate in hunting throughout the year.”
Biologists also asked to split the state’s firearm and archery seasons for wild boar into two parts, one of which would take place in early February.
The proposal calls for the first split of the boar firearm season to run from Oct. 27 to Sept. 16 and the second split to run from Feb. 1-3, 2019. The first split of the boar archery season would run from Sept. 29 to Nov. 3, and the second split would take place Feb. 1-3, 2019.
Gary Foster, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, told commissioners the divided season would create more hunting opportunities, but it wouldn’t harm the wild boar population. He said all of the 91 boars killed by hunters last year were taken in Logan and Boone counties, mostly by bowhunters.
The state’s archery season for urban deer would also be divided into two parts on opposite sides of New Year’s Day. The first segment would run from Sept. 8 to Dec. 31, and the second segment would take place Jan. 14-20, 2019.
Johansen said the timing of the January segment of the season would allow deer to settle down a bit after being pursued throughout the fall.
“More important, though, it would allow municipalities and homeowners’ associations suffering deer damage to adjust their deer populations downward by encouraging hunters to harvest antlerless deer,” he said. “I don’t know how many communities will take advantage of the opportunity, but it’s another tool in their kit to control local deer populations.”
At the same time DNR officials proposed to split several seasons, they sought to consolidate the state’s split archery and crossbow season for black bears. Currently, bowhunters are prohibited from hunting bears during the firearm season for buck deer.
Johansen said the consolidation would help simplify the state’s bear-hunting regulations, which have become increasingly complex in recent years. The consolidated season would begin Sept. 29 and end Dec. 31.
Colin Carpenter, the DNR’s bear project leader, also asked commissioners to double the length of one early fall bear season and create another from whole cloth.
The early September firearm season for bears in Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming counties would be expanded to 16 days instead of the current eight. Carpenter said the lengthened season will probably help slow the growth of the area’s rapidly expanding bear population. If approved, the season would open Sept. 1 and end Sept. 16.
The brand-new firearm season would take place Oct. 25-28 during the state’s early firearm season for antlerless deer. Bear hunting would take place only in counties where a two-bear limit is in effect, and hunters would not be allowed to use dogs.
DNR officials also asked commissioners to move the state’s traditional six-day muzzleloader season for deer back to its original mid-December spot in the fall schedule.
“This is an effort to try to garner additional interest in muzzleloader hunting,” Johansen said. “In 2012, we moved it into early December to encourage additional participation. That move appears to have had just the opposite effect. Participation fell off, and the muzzleloader harvest dropped. So now we’re moving it back to its original slot.”
If approved, this fall’s muzzleloader season would begin Dec. 10 and end Dec. 16.
One DNR proposal dealt with bag limits rather than season lengths.
Currently, in counties with high deer populations, hunters who kill a buck must kill an antlerless deer before they’re allowed to kill a second buck. Under the proposal, that requirement would be spread across hunting disciplines.
For example, a bowhunter who killed a buck would have to kill an antlerless deer, either during the bow season or during the early firearm antlerless season, before he or she would be allowed to kill a buck during the buck firearm season.
Foster called the proposed regulation “another step to increase the antlerless-deer harvest.”
Not all of the DNR’s suggested changes were big-game related. Agency biologists asked the commission to prohibit quail hunting on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, home to the state’s elk-restoration project. Currently, there are no quail on the 45,000-acre WMA, but DNR officials are thinking about trying to establish a population.
“Tomblin has a unique habitat,” Johansen explained. “It’s not only good for elk, but it also has potential for quail. We’ll have to do some additional habitat-enhancement work, but that work would be good for both quail and elk. They’re very different creatures, but there’s significant overlap in their habitat requirements.”
DNR biologists also made a couple of significant fishing-related proposals.
The first would establish catch-and-release trout fishing regulations on four streams and all their tributaries: the Middle Fork of the Williams River and Tea Creek in Pocahontas County, Red Creek in Tucker County, and Otter Creek in Tucker and Randolph counties.
Jim Hedrick, the agency’s acting head of fisheries, said the regulations would encompass more than 130 miles of brook trout water.
“The DNR has a lot of work invested in those streams,” he added. “We felt that adding catch-and-release restrictions would ensure that those trout populations remain healthy. It would also help to showcase those streams and promote them as trout-fishing destinations.”
The other significant fisheries-related proposal would allow participants in registered bass fishing tournaments at Stonewall Jackson Lake to keep more than one fish 18 inches or larger in their livewell, provided all the fish are released after the tournament’s weigh-in.
Currently, bass anglers are restricted to possess just one fish 18 inches or larger, which prevents tournament fishermen from weighing in more than one large fish on any given day. Hedrick said loosening the restriction would allow for better weigh-ins and further raise the profile of Stonewall’s popular bass fishery.
If approved, the fisheries-related proposals would go into effect Jan. 1, 2019.
All of the DNR’s proposals will be put before the public at meetings held in mid-March at 12 locations throughout the state. Commission members will read and consider the public’s comments before they vote on the proposals.