The coronavirus pandemic kept state wildlife officials from holding their annual “sportsman meetings” last year, and it’s going to do the same thing this year.
Division of Natural Resources officials don’t believe the meetings, ordinarily held in early March at a dozen locations throughout the state, can be held safely.
“We don’t think it’s safe at this point, for the public or for our staff, to hold face-to-face meetings,” DNR wildlife chief Paul Johansen told members of the state Natural Resources Commission at a recent meeting.
The seven-member commission, which sets the state’s hunting and fishing season dates and regulations, ordinarily relies on the meetings to gauge hunters’ and anglers’ feelings about regulation changes proposed by DNR biologists.
Agency director Steve McDaniel said even though Gov. Jim Justice recently relaxed some of the state’s guidelines for reduced public meeting capacity due to COVID-19, the anticipated crowds at some venues could make it difficult to maintain proper social distancing.
“The last thing we want to do is invite people to come, and then have to turn them away,” McDaniel said.
Despite the relaxed guidelines, officials at some of the facilities used for the meetings declined to serve as hosts this year, Johansen added.
Instead of in-person meetings, DNR officials plan to have sportsmen and landowners go online to register comments about the agency’s proposed regulation changes.
“We will post all the questions on our website [www.wvdnr.com], and we will have copies of the questionnaire available at all of our district offices, at the Elkins Operations Center, and at the DNR headquarters in South Charleston,” Johansen said.
“Those who choose the online option can download the questionnaire, fill it out and send it to us.”
Not many of this year’s proposed hunting- and fishing-related changes are expected to stir much controversy, but three trial balloons being floated by agency officials just might.
The first asks hunters if they’d like to change the structure of the state’s fall turkey season by moving the season’s final week (this year scheduled for Nov. 8-14) into the following January (Jan. 17-23, 2022).
Hunters will also be asked if they’d prefer to maintain the current season framework (Oct. 9-17 and Oct. 25-Nov. 14).
“There have been questions from sportsmen about moving the fourth week of the fall season into January,” said Gary Foster, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief.
“That week of the season used to be held in December, and some turkey hunters liked that. After we started adding more deer seasons, we kicked it back into November. We want to find out if there’s any desire on the part of hunters to move it into January.”
The second trial balloon involves closing three public hunting areas to firearm hunting during the two-week buck firearm season.
Instead, the Little Canaan Wildlife Management Area, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and the Calvin Price State Forest would be open to bow and crossbow hunting. Bucks taken on those areas would be required to have a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches.
The areas also would be opened for an early one-week either-sex muzzleloader season at a time yet to be determined.
Even if the public likes the concept, changing the regulations could take quite some time. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns and manages the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, must sign off on the proposal first — a process that could take up to two years.
The final trial balloon revisits the question of removing catch-and-release trout regulations from a 4.3-mile section of the Cranberry River from the junction of the North and South forks downstream to the low-water bridge at Dogway Fork.
The Natural Resources Commission last year voted to eliminate the catch-and-release area, but McDaniel later rescinded the ruling because the public hadn’t been given a chance to comment on it.
Input received from hunters, anglers, landowners and other interested parties will be considered if or when the commission takes up the topics at its May or August meetings.