As far as West Virginia’s deer hunters are concerned, perfect storms result in imperfect buck harvests.
Hunters killed just 36,796 bucks during the Nov. 25-Dec. 7 firearm season, the lowest total in 41 years. State wildlife officials believe environmental and sociological factors combined to push the harvest below expectations.
“It wasn’t necessarily any single factor,” said Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife chief. “It appears that mast conditions, weather, the timing of the season, and fears about deer diseases all played a role.”
Before the season began, DNR biologists expected a buck kill roughly equivalent to or slightly below last year’s total of 44,599.
They figured the number of deer had remained essentially constant since 2015, but this year’s abundant red-oak acorn crop might scatter deer throughout the woods and make them less vulnerable to people hunting in fields or over bait.
Johansen said that part of the biologists’ forecast came true.
“Mast conditions were such in large portions of the state that deer were widely distributed across the landscape,” he explained. “When deer are scattered like that, they’re less vulnerable to the gun.”
Weather can sometimes play a significant role in the buck harvest, for better or for worse. In 2016, perfect weather conditions during the buck season’s first three days helped push the harvest total past the 60,000 mark for the first time in several years.
This year, buck hunters enjoyed good weather over the season’s first two days, but poor weather plagued key parts of the remainder of the season.
“Weather was less than ideal on the [third day] and on both of the season’s weekends,” Johansen said. “That had to be a contributing factor. Traditionally, after the first two days, most of the kill for the rest of the season takes place on the third day and on the two weekends.”
In most years, the opening days of the season closely coincide with the peak of whitetail mating activity. This year, they didn’t.
“The way the calendar fell, the season opened on Nov. 25th, which is the latest it can possibly open,” Johansen said. “I think we may have missed the peak of the rut, and that would have had an effect on deer movements and behavior.”
The final factor, which Johansen believes may have played a major role in the harvest decline, dealt with people’s fears about deer diseases.
“Some outlets in the media, and in social media, picked up on a story that deer in one specific area of Michigan had been infected by bovine tuberculosis,” he said.
“Some media platforms interpreted that to say that TB had been detected in deer nationwide, which simply wasn’t the case. Then, on top of that, we had an outbreak here of [epizootic hemorrhagic disease].
“EHD doesn’t affect humans, but we think people who heard about the EHD outbreak confused it with the story about TB, and we think those people sat out the buck season because of the disease scare. We got tons of calls asking whether deer meat was safe to consume.”
Johansen said some hunters are interpreting the low buck harvest as a sign that whitetail populations have dramatically since last year.
“That’s simply not the case,” he added. “In 1978, the last year the buck harvest was this low, the total archery kill was 4,350.
“This year’s archery kill, unofficially, appears to be on pace to equal last year’s [26,636], which would indicate our deer herd has not suffered any significant decline. Yes, the buck harvest was lower than we thought it would be, but that’s not a sign that the world’s coming to an end.”