At first glance, the numbers for West Virginia’s 2019 deer season look bad. On second glance, they’re not as bad as they appear.
The buck kill fell 17 percent. The antlerless-deer kill dropped 13 percent. The overall statewide kill dropped 9 percent to 99,437 — the lowest total since 1983.
Even in the face of those declines, however, the archery kill rose 11 percent and the muzzleloader kill went up 7 percent. Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the archery and muzzleloader numbers should reassure hunters who feared they were seeing a serious decline in West Virginia’s whitetail population.
“The sky is not falling,” he said. “There are still plenty of deer on the landscape. I think the archery and muzzleloader totals bear that out.”
Bowhunters enjoyed one of their best seasons in recent years. The archery harvest, crossbows included, came in at 29,508, roughly 10 percent better than the most recent five-year average of 26,833. The totals for the bow kill do not include the 29 deer taken with longbows and recurve bows during January’s Mountaineer Heritage season.
The highest archery totals came from the following counties: Preston, 1,680; Randolph, 1,139; Kanawha, 998; Raleigh, 979; Wyoming, 969; Upshur, 947; Fayette, 897; Mercer, 763; Nicholas, 743; and Wood, 714.
For the third year in a row, the proportion of deer taken by hunters using crossbows exceeded the proportion taken by hunters wielding upright bows.
Muzzleloader enthusiasts killed 4,522 whitetails, up from 2018’s total of 4,830. The total does not include 570 deer taken with sidelocks and flintlocks during the Mountaineer Heritage season. The top-producing muzzleloader counties included Preston, 235; Randolph, 234; Nicholas, 173; Braxton, 165; Upshur, 150; Jackson, 146; Fayette, 145; Greenbrier, 139; Webster, 137; and Lewis, 120.
Johansen believes the uptick in the archery harvest and the decline in the buck harvest were interrelated, brought on by a quirk in the calendar.
“The 2019 buck season was a bit unusual because it came in on Nov. 25, the latest day it would ever occur on the calendar,” he explained. “Usually, the season opens during the peak of the rut; in 2019 it opened after the peak of the rut.
“That was great for bowhunters, who were in their tree stands the week before that, during the peak of the rut, when deer are most vulnerable to hunters. It wasn’t so great for hunters who went out with rifles during the buck season.”
Johansen said he “strongly suspects” rutting activity peaked a few days before the buck firearm season began. With deer less active, and thus less available to hunters, the buck harvest dropped to 36,472, the lowest total in 41 years.
Less clear are the factors that might have contributed to the antlerless-deer kill. It dropped to just 28,336, down from the 32,571 taken in 2018, and a whopping 21 percent below the five-year average.
Johansen said the lack of rutting activity during the buck season, when antlerless deer are also fair game, might have contributed because fewer female deer were being chased by males. He said, too, that hunters’ fears over disease concerns might have reached a peak during that time.
Earlier in the fall, erroneous media and social media reports led some hunters to believe that West Virginia’s deer might be infected with tuberculosis.
“That was never the case,” Johansen said. “That report came from one county in Michigan, and someone misconstrued it to be true about deer in other parts of the country. I suspect, however, that the rumors were enough to convince some hunters not to pick up a rifle.”
West Virginia’s deer did suffer from an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, during the fall of 2019, and some hunters might have conflated the two. Unlike tuberculosis, EHD cannot be transmitted from deer to humans.
Johansen said the EHD outbreak did lead to localized deer-herd declines across a swath of the state that stretched between Summers County in the south to Harrison County in the north.
“We have EHD outbreaks every couple of years, though, and the deer populations always bounce back,” he said. “I’m sure that will be the case this time, too.”
The degree to which the harvest numbers will affect next fall’s deer-hunting regulations won’t be known until Feb. 23, when DNR biologists reveal their recommendations at the midwinter meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission.