GRAFTON — Hunters came to Sunday’s Natural Resources Commission meeting expecting a vote to reduce the state’s bag limit on buck deer.
They’re still expecting it.
Citing a need to gather additional information, the seven-man panel postponed the vote until next May. The move clearly frustrated proponents of a two-buck limit, dozens of whom crowded into a small, hot Tygart Lake State Park meeting room to lobby for their cause.
The commission’s August meeting is usually a sleepy affair at which the commissioners approve fishing and small-game hunting regulations for the following year. But when Division of Natural Resources director Steve McDaniel placed a buck-limit vote on the agenda, interest skyrocketed.
Representatives of two groups, the Quality Deer Management Association and West Virginia Hunters for Better Buck Management, urged their members to attend. To show solidarity, two-buck proponents even wore matching T-shirts.
Kip Adams, conservation director for QDMA’s national office, made a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation in support of a two-buck measure. Adams outlined a long-term trend that has developed among hunters who prefer to hunt older-age deer, and he cited statistics from Tennessee that showed an increase in the number of antler points on bucks’ racks after that state reduced its limit from three to two.
All 11 of the people who weighed in during the public-comment portion of the meeting spoke in support of a lower limit. Three other people also spoke, but their comments dealt with different issues.
After the public-comment segment of the meeting, McDaniel called on several members of the DNR staff to brief commissioners about the agency’s efforts to determine public sentiment toward a lower limit, potential economic impacts on the agency and potential impacts on the deer herd.
Zack Brown, the DNR’s federal aid coordinator, explained the results of a $117,000 survey by Southwick Associates, a nationally known public-research firm.
Brown said that among licensed hunters, 56 percent favored a two-buck limit while 40 percent favored maintaining the current three-buck limit. Four percent had no opinion. Among nonlicensed landowners, 52 percent favored a lower limit, 40 percent favored the same limit and 8 percent had no opinion. Among nonresident license holders, 52 percent favored a reduction, 41 favored the status quo and 7 percent had no opinion.
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s wildlife chief, said the agency’s biologists recommended the bag limit be kept the same.
He said the only advantage of reducing the limit would be “a perceived perception that the DNR is attempting to grow deer with larger antlers.”
“[Young]-buck mortality is not excessive here in West Virginia,” he added. “Any increases in antler size [from a two-buck limit] would be minimal. Adoption [of a two-buck limit] would mislead the public, because it will not produce a noticeable shift in buck age structure.”
Scott Cline, representing the DNR’s administrative section, cautioned that implementation of a two-buck limit without an accompanying license-fee increase would cause the agency to lose more than $828,000 over a period of three years. More than $500,000 of that, he added, would occur during the first year.
McDaniel said the losses Cline detailed would actually be worse, because they didn’t take into account overall declines in hunting-license purchases. McDaniel said total losses would amount to approximately $1.5 million over three years.
The financial information appeared to blunt commissioners’ willingness to vote on a lower limit. Commissioner Tom Dotson of Greenbrier County expressed overall support for a two-buck limit, but argued that it would be financially irresponsible to impose a limit without a corresponding license-fee increase to compensate for the anticipated shortfall caused by the sale of fewer buck tags.
“We can’t do this without the Legislature,” Dotson said. “We can’t make up for [a shortfall] without a license raise. If we get that, [a lower limit] works for everybody.”
Commissioner Greg Burnette of Kanawha County moved to immediately adopt a two-buck limit, but his motion died for lack of a second. Dotson then moved to hold an up-or-down vote on a lowered limit at the commission’s May 2020 meeting, which would give the Legislature a chance to increase fees. That motion passed unanimously.
Both McDaniel and Johansen emphasized that DNR officials would not seek, or even propose a license increase. McDaniel hinted that it would be up to two-buck proponents to lobby the Legislature for any increases.
“We will ... we will,” came a voice from the back of the room.
McDaniel said the DNR and the commission would revisit the issue at their midwinter meeting in February, and would try to put the question before sportsmen at a series of 12 public meetings in March.