Meetings of the West Virginia Natural Resources Commission are normally rather sedate affairs.
More than 300 people jammed into the meeting room to argue against legislation that would allow for guided bear hunts, and to argue in favor of a lower buck limit for deer hunters.
The crowd was too large for the original venue at the Division of Natural Resources building in South Charleston, so DNR officials moved it to a much larger meeting room at a nearby motel.
The vast majority of those in attendance were bear hunters, most of them clad in orange T-shirts to make their show of force more visible.
They were protesting Senate Bill 590, a bill that would make guided bear hunts legal in the Mountain State. They currently are illegal.
The Natural Resources Commission has no influence over legislation, but bear hunters chose to protest the bill at the commission’s meeting because it was held during the weekend.
“We’re working people,” said Don Radcliff, president of the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association. “If the Legislature met on a Saturday or a Sunday, we’d be there. This was the only venue where we could turn out like this.”
Several of the bear hunters who spoke out at the meeting, Radcliff included, had harsh words for state Sen. Mark Maynard (R-Wayne), who sponsored the bill.
“This bill was back-doored [out of the Natural Resources Committee, where Maynard is chairman],” Radcliff said. “It didn’t go through the usual bill-drafting, bill-origination process. It’s dirty politics at its best.”
Radcliff accused Maynard of acting out of a conflict of interest. Maynard’s sister, Lisa Dean, and her husband Daron are co-owners of Elk Springs Resort in Randolph County and run guided deer- and turkey-hunting trips.
After the meeting, Daron Dean vehemently denied that the bill would have benefited his family in any way. “The bill would have granted guide licenses only to West Virginians,” he said. “Lisa and I are Kentucky residents, so we wouldn’t have been able to get a license even if we’d wanted to.”
Several bear hunters called the proposed bill “nose under the tent” legislation that would ultimately lead to baiting for bears and the demise of West Virginians’ preferred method of bear hunting, treeing them with hounds.
“This is a foot in the door,” said Shawna Covert. “We know that. We do not want guided bear hunting. Bear hunting is not our hobby; it’s our way of life.”
Though great in number, the bear hunters chose to have only a few people speak on their behalf during the meeting’s public-comment period. Proponents of a one- or two-buck limit for deer hunters marched to the lectern in a seemingly endless procession.
“West Virginia hunters have to travel out of state or to the southern [bowhunting-only] counties to hunt mature bucks,” said Mike Persinger of Oak Hill. “The [southern] counties have the best antlers and the best doe-buck ratio of anywhere in the state. We want to have that in other parts of the state.”
Several of buck-limit proponents argued for a one-buck limit, but said they’d be willing to “compromise” for a two-buck limit with antler-point restrictions on the second buck.
“We have four counties where hunters can take only one buck, and it seems to work for them,” said Jared Huggins. “I think it would benefit the rest of the state, too. Big bucks bring big money.”
Shon Butler of Buckhannon, who wrote a controversial bill that would have forced the Natural Resources Commission to impose a two-buck limit, said commissioners should be willing to take that step on their own.
“Do we want to legislate deer management? No,” he said. “But the DNR and the commission should consider that 50 percent of their users — numbers from the DNR’s own survey — want a two- or one-buck limit.”
DNR director Steve McDaniel pledged to have the commission bring the issue up for a vote, most likely at its July meeting.
“We’ve hired a professional survey group, Southwick Associates, to tell us how license revenue would be affected if we lower buck limit from 3 to 2,” he said. “The surveys we hand out at our sectional meetings in March will ask hunters how they feel about a reduction. At the May meeting, we’ll entertain a motion to lower the buck limit from 3 to 2 and set up a vote on it at the July meeting at Tygart Lake State Park.”
The usual purpose of the commission’s midwinter meeting is for DNR officials to propose big-game hunting regulation changes for the fall seasons and fishing-regulation changes for the following year. Before the public-comment part of the meeting, they did just that.
Ordinarily, the most significant changes are to antlerless-deer and bear hunting regulations, but the most significant proposals at Sunday’s meeting were devoted to fishing.
If approved by the commission, the following changes would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020:
- Anglers would no longer be allowed to collect bait fish, or even to possess bait fish, on waters considered important habitat for the endangered candy darter, a 3-inch-long bottom-dwelling species found in some of the state’s most popular trout streams.
Affected waters would include the upper Greenbrier River watershed, from the confluence of the East and West forks upstream into all the tributaries; the Gauley River watershed upstream from the Curtin bridge, including the Cherry, Cranberry, Williams and upper Gauley rivers and all their tributaries; and the Camp Creek and Manns Creek watersheds in southern West Virginia.
Mark Scott, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of fisheries, said the regulations stem from so-called “bait bucket” introductions of variegate darters, a competing species considered responsible for candy darter losses.
“We’ve identified specific areas where there are still intact candy darter populations,” Scott added. “Anglers in those areas will still be able to use other live baits, but they will no longer be allowed to use any fish species for bait.”
Scott said DNR officials will no longer stock brown trout in those streams because browns have been known to feed on candy darters. Other trout species will still be stocked.
Other fisheries proposals include:
- The daily creel limit for muskellunge, tiger muskie, northern pike and chain pickerel would be reduced to one fish a day. The current limit for muskellunge, tiger muskie and pike is two a day, and there is no current limit for pickerel.
- The minimum size limit for tiger muskie would be increased to 30 inches. Currently the limit is 28 inches.
- A 20- to 30-inch slot limit for walleye, with a daily creel limit of two fish, would be put in place on the Elk River upstream of Sutton Dam, which would include Sutton Lake and all its tributaries; and on the Gauley River upstream from Summersville Lake, beginning at the mouth of Persinger Creek. All fish between 20 and 30 inches would have to be released, and anglers would be able to keep only fish larger than 30 inches.
- The current 20- to 30-inch slot, two-fish limit in effect for walleye on the Bluestone, Coal, Elk, Greenbrier, Gauley, upper Kanawha and New rivers would be extended into all those rivers’ tributaries.
- A six-fish daily aggregate limit would be placed on Ohio River walleye, sauger and saugeye. Only two of the six fish could be walleye, and those would have to at least 18 inches in length.
Scott said the walleye regulations are designed to accomplish two goals: to allow populations of native-strain walleyes to expand; and to create more uniform, easy-to-understand regulations throughout entire watersheds.
- A four-fish limit on white bass, striped bass and hybrid striped bass would go into effect on Bluestone, Beech Fork and R.D. Bailey lakes. A similar regulation, currently in effect at East Lynn Lake, would be rescinded.
The limits are being imposed primarily to protect hybrid striped bass, which the DNR now purchases from neighboring states. Anglers often confused immature hybrid stripers (for which the creel limit is four a day and the minimum size limit is 15 inches) for white bass, which have a 30-fish daily creel limit and no minimum size limit.
“Since we’re now buying hybrids, we don’t want to see 30 of them going out before they’re 15 inches long,” Scott explained. “We’re taking East Lynn off that regulation because we’re no longer putting hybrids in there.”
Compared to the fisheries proposals, this year’s hunting-regulation proposals seem relatively minor.
DNR wildlife chief Paul Johansen said the most significant change, if approved, would add extra days to the state’s special youth seasons for squirrels, antlerless deer and wild turkeys. In each case, the one-day seasons — traditionally held on Saturdays — would extend into Sundays as well.
“The theory behind it is that it will help us recruit new hunters,” Johansen explained. “Adding those Sundays helps avoid the possibility of a washout if it rains on Saturday.”
Other hunting-related proposals include:
- Imposition of older-age deer regulations on the new, 10,416-acre Little Kanawha Wildlife Management Area in Wirt and Calhoun counties. Bucks killed by hunters there would have to have an antler spread of at least 14 inches.
- Hunters who participate in the October antlerless-deer and bear season would be able to hunt on public lands as well as private lands.
- The season for hunting coyotes with artificial lights would be extended by one month. The new closing date for the season would be Aug. 31 instead of July 31.
The DNR did not propose many changes to the state’s antlerless-deer or bear-hunting regulations. Agency biologists recommended:
- Slightly more liberal antleress-deer seasons for northern Wayne, Boone, northern Lincoln, Marion, Mason, Morgan and Jefferson counties; and slightly more restrictive regulations for Doddridge, Ritchie, Tyler, Nicholas and southern Clay.
- The addition of public lands to the October concurrent antlerless-deer/bear season, provided the public lands in question are open to antlerless-deer hunting.
- The addition of Barbour, Braxton, Calhoun, Clay, Gilmer, Harrison, Lewis, Lincoln, Monongalia, Roane, Taylor and Upshur counties to the Oct. 24-27 concurrent bear/antlerless-deer season.
Commission members took the proposals under advisement, and are expected to vote on them at the spring meeting on May 5.