Wildlife won’t have much to eat this fall, and hunters stand to gain.
That’s the bottom line in the Division of Natural Resources’ 2020 Mast Report and Hunting Outlook. The annual report, which documents the abundance or scarcity of nuts, fruits and other natural foods, says this will be a lean fall for West Virginia’s wild animals and birds.
“Overall, 16 of the 18 species [we monitor] are down,” said Chris Ryan, the DNR’s game services supervisor. “Red/black oak and scarlet oak were the only species that most of our observers rated as ‘abundant.’ The other 16 species were off quite a bit from their usual numbers.”
The numbers appear grim.
White oak acorns, ordinarily a staple for wildlife, came in 54% below the survey’s long-term average. Chestnut oak is 57% less abundant than usual. Beechnuts, walnuts and hickory nuts are down 45%, 30% and 48%, respectively.
Apples, cherries, grapes, and other “soft mast” items are just as scarce, if not more so.
The apple crop came in 80% below average. Black cherry is down 33%, grape 45%, crabapple 57% and hawthorn 49%.
About all that kept DNR officials from declaring a full-fledged mast failure is the relative abundance of red/black oak and scarlet oak. Red/black oak acorns are 27% more abundant than average, scarlet oak acorns 56%.
“This year is different from mast-failure years because of those two species,” Ryan said. “If you think back on the years when we’ve had failures, all the oak species were down.”
Due to the sheer abundance of oak trees in West Virginia’s woods, acorns are far more important to wildlife than other nuts or fruits. Ryan said the increases in red/black and scarlet oak acorns far outweigh the declines in some of the other species.
“To declare this year a mast failure, we’d have to give something like sassafras the same value as oak, and that just isn’t realistic,” he added.
One unusual feature of this year’s decline is that it was consistent throughout most of the state. Typically, mast abundance varies from one region to another. Ryan said that isn’t the case in 2020.
“In the Eastern Panhandle, there was a little bit of a difference; but statewide, things were much more consistent than they ordinarily are,” he continued.
The shortage of food plays into hunters’ hands. When mast is scarce, mammals and birds become more vulnerable to hunters by congregating in areas where food is relatively abundant.
In the Hunting Forecast portion of the survey, DNR biologists predicted good hunting for several key species.
Most important among those are the firearm harvests for buck and antlerless deer, both predicted to increase this year. According to the forecast, a record-breaking bear kill is practically a done deal. Squirrel hunting should be quite good, too.
Biologists believe the deer archery, fall turkey and wild boar harvests will come in roughly around average. Of the state’s major game species, the only ones predicted to decline are cottontail rabbits and ruffed grouse.