APPLE GROVE — During the first two days of West Virginia’s firearm season for buck deer, hunters in two counties experienced a return to the past.
For the first time in two years, they were asked to bring their deer to designated game-checking stations, a practice largely eliminated when the state switched to an electronic check system.
The reason? Biology.
“When we make decisions about deer management, we need to know how many deer of a certain age are being harvested,” said Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “Before 2015, when people brought their deer to checking stations, we were able to examine the deer, determine their ages and gauge how healthy they were.”
Rather than fully revert to the old system, DNR officials decided to designate a couple of counties a year and run what they call “biological check stations” in them. Mason and Upshur counties were this year’s designees.
DNR biologists and wildlife managers set up five stations in Mason County and six in Upshur, with two to three workers at each location. They looked at the animals’ age, general health and nutritional condition, antler spreads and main-beam diameters, and evidence of past disease. The stations were open during the buck season’s first two days.
“The most important information we gathered was age,” Johansen said. “We need to know the percentage of [year-and-a-half-old deer] in the harvest.”
In the 1990s, so-called “yearlings” comprised up to 90 percent of each year’s whitetail kill. Today, due to changes in the structure of the buck season, the percentage of yearlings in the kill is down to 60 percent or thereabouts.
Kem Shaw, the DNR’s district biologist for the state’s southwestern counties, said the average buck killed nowadays ranges between 2 ½ and 3 ½ years of age.
“When they’re yearlings, they usually have spike or four-point antlers,” Shaw explained. “When they reach 2 ½ to 3 ½ years, you start seeing them carry eight-point racks and larger.”
Agency officials placed the bio-check stations at convenience stores and filling stations, places hunters often visit after they make their kills. Notices placed in the DNR’s hunting-regulations booklet and in local newspapers urged sportsmen to take their kills to the designated stations.
Shaw thinks some hunters didn’t get the word.
“I’m not sure we’re getting complete compliance,” he said on the season’s opening day. “We tried to publicize [the stations], but I don’t think we were able to reach everyone.”
He said DNR officials considered setting up stations at deer-cutting facilities or taxidermists’ shops, but ultimately decided the data might be biased.
“If a hunter gets a 40-pound doe, for example, chances are he isn’t going to take it to a [meat cutter],” Shaw explained. “And if another hunter gets a spike buck, he probably isn’t going to take it to a taxidermist. We think this setup is the way to get the most realistic samples.”
Hunters who brought their deer to the biological stations were still required to register their kills using the electronic system; the bio-stations’ only function was to record data pertaining to age and health.
Health turned out to be more of a concern this year than it usually is. Twenty-two counties suffered outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, commonly known as EHD and sometimes mistaken for the “bluetongue” disease found in livestock, deer and bison.
EHD usually kills the deer it infects, but some survive. Shaw said “hoof lesions” — deep creases in at least three of a deer’s four hooves — are commonly found on survivors. He said he didn’t expect to find many lesions.
“In a year when we have EHD outbreaks, we usually see five or six deer that survived and were killed by hunters,” he added. “We seem to get outbreaks every five years or so.”
DNR officials also set up checking stations in the Eastern Panhandle, but for a different sort of data. In 2004, chronic wasting disease was discovered in a dead buck near Slanesville, in Hampshire County. Since then, the agency has collected blood and tissue samples from deer killed in Hampshire and Hardy counties to monitor the disease’s prevalence and range.
Wildlife chief Johansen said the DNR plans to continue the biological stations in future seasons, rotating them around to ensure the deer population is being adequately monitored throughout the state.