Depending on your point of view, West Virginia’s 2020 buck kill is either encouraging or disappointing.
Hunters probably are disappointed. After all, the total harvest of 38,776 was the second-lowest in recent history and 10% under the average for the last five years.
The state’s chief of wildlife resources, on the other hand, says he isn’t disappointed at all.
“We predicted the [buck kill] would be higher than last year’s, and it was,” said Paul Johansen. “Overall, I’m very OK with where the harvest came in.”
Given the size of the state’s deer herd, it would have been difficult to have a buck kill lower than last year’s.
Hunters bagged just 36,472 whitetails in 2019, 18% fewer than in 2018 and 22% fewer than the five-year average. It was the lowest buck harvest in more than 30 years.
This year’s harvest represented a 6% increase from that low-water mark. Headed into the season, DNR biologists had expected more. Johansen himself had predicted that the kill would come in between 40,000 and 45,000.
“It’s difficult to make prognostications about the buck harvest,” he said after the preliminary harvest figures came in south of that range. “There were factors that played into keeping the kill below where it might have been.
“One big one was the weather during the season’s first three days. It was great in the Kanawha Valley and the southwestern part of the state, but in other parts of the state they had high winds and, in places, even some blowing snow.”
Johansen said a major reason the harvest wasn’t a disappointment was the overall quality of the bucks hunters managed to take.
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard and seen stories of some really nice bucks this year,” he added. “We were expecting hunters to take some older-age bucks because of the rollover of deer from the sharp decline in last year’s harvest.
“What’s really encouraging is that the big bucks this year weren’t restricted to the four archery-only counties. They came from all across the state.”
He said Division of Natural Resources biologists are looking forward to scoring the racks of bucks killed by archers during the early-November rut as well those killed with firearms during the Nov. 23-Dec. 6 buck season.
“They’ll be measuring those racks as soon as the [mandatory 60-day] drying periods are up,” he added.
Even though two harvests in a row have come in at less than 40,000, Johansen believes better days are ahead.
“Looking through the crystal ball, I would suggest that our buck kill is going to come in between 40,000 and 45,000 on average,” he said. “There will be years we dip below that, and I think a more realistic prediction would be closer to 40,000 than 45,000.”
He doesn’t expect the buck harvest ever to get return to the high-water marks reached in the 1990s, when kills ran as high as 102,000.
“Certainly, we’re well below the numbers we had 15 to 20 years ago,” he continued. “We’ve successfully adjusted deer populations down to levels that are much more appropriate for the state’s [biological] carrying capacity.”
Biologists historically have used the buck harvest as an index to gauge deer herd size.
Each county’s buck kill per square mile serves as a guidepost for DNR officials, who impose more liberal antlerless-deer limits when it runs higher than desired, and impose more conservative limits when it runs lower.
Johansen said today’s statewide whitetail population is “about at the level we were looking for when we developed the long-term strategic plan for our deer herd.”
By that measure, hunters shouldn’t expect it to increase or decrease more than a few percent each year in the foreseeable future.
That should please biologists. Hunters? Maybe not so much.