With white-tailed deer so abundant nowadays in West Virginia, it’s hard to believe they were ever scarce.
A short while back, I got a call that reminded me just how few deer there were, at least in some parts of the state. The call came from Sandra Webb Casteel, who grew up in Boone County.
She told me of a time in the late 1940s when folks were so eager to reestablish a whitetail population that they’d endure considerable hardship to help make it happen.
Her parents, Ray and Genevieve Price, weren’t willing to wait until deer repopulated the hills and hollows near Madison. They knew it would take years, if not decades, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.
“My father arranged with the Conservation Commission to let him raise six fawns,” Casteel said. “The fawns came from the French Creek Game Farm, and he kept them in a barn in West Madison until they were old enough to release.”
The Conservation Commission, for the 99 percent of you who are too young to know, was the forerunner of today’s Division of Natural Resources. The French Creek Game Farm eventually became the West Virginia Wildlife Center.
In the 1930s and 1940s, biologists in West Virginia — like those in many states — believed the fastest way to replenish wildlife populations was to raise them on farms and release them into the wild. The French Creek facility raised deer, turkeys and ring-necked pheasants, among others.
By the late 1940s, it was starting to dawn on wildlife officials that raising game animals in pens wasn’t an effective way to help those critters deal with life in the real world.
Casteel’s parents were willing to give it a try anyway.
“So, every morning at 4 a.m., they’d get up and prepare the formula for the fawns,” she recalled. “Then Dad would go over to the barn to feed them. Once the fawns were fed, he’d get with the rest of the men in his car pool and head on to work.”
Once the fawns were weaned and capable of surviving on their own, they were released.
Today’s biologists can put radio telemetry collars on the creatures they release, and track the animals’ movements across the landscape. That was unheard of in 1949, so no one really knew what happened to the six barn-reared fawns.
Or did they?
“Two or three years later, Dad was fishing [in the Little Coal River] down near Lory,” Casteel said. “He spotted a buck. When the buck spotted him, he came over and started rubbing up against him. Dad believed it was one of the fawns he raised. It had recognized him and came over to say hello.”
If it indeed was one of the the young deer Price had raised, it had reached an age at which it could breed. It’s possible, then, that the buck’s descendants still roam the hills of northwestern Boone and southeastern Lincoln counties.
“We’re a hunting family,” Casteel said. “It’s nice to think that Dad has great-great grandchildren who are still hunting for the offspring of those fawns. That area has a pretty good deer population, and it produces some really nice bucks. We like to think our family had a hand in that.”