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John McCoy: Deer harvest decline had natural causes

The final results of West Virginia’ 2017 deer season came as no surprise to state wildlife officials.

“The numbers came in almost remarkably close to what we had expected,” said Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife chief. “That doesn’t happen every year.”

Before hunting began last fall, DNR biologists predicted that an abundance of acorns would scatter deer and cause slight declines in all four deer seasons — buck, antlerless, archery and muzzleloader. Sure enough, harvest figures for those seasons fell off a bit from 2016’s totals.

Preliminary numbers from the state’s electronic game-checking system indicate a 4.2 percent decline in the buck kill, a 3.5 percent decline in the antlerless kill, a 1.2 percent decline in the archery kill and a 15 percent decline in the muzzleloader kill.

Why was the drop in the muzzleloader kill so much steeper than the other seasons’? Well, warm weather during the first two days of the short six-day black-powder hunt might have accounted for some of the decline, and hunters might also have been a bit “hunted out” after the 12-day buck firearm season.

The kill declined by just 754 animals, but Johansen said that in a short season with relatively small harvest numbers, it doesn’t take much to throw the percentages out of whack.

By contrast, the archery harvest fell by 218, but that decline represented only a tiny portion of the 26,206 whitetails killed.

Johansen said the sheer length of the archery season, which stretched from Sept. 30 through Dec. 31, helped minimize the harvest decline.

“There are a lot of Saturdays and Sundays in a three-month season,” he explained, “and we didn’t have any confounding weather situations to throw things off. Hunters enjoyed decent weather pretty much the entire fall.”

The popularity, accuracy and ease of crossbows might also have contributed to archers’ relative success. For the first time since 2015, when crossbows became legal for able-bodied hunters as well as physically handicapped individuals, the number of deer killed with crossbows outstripped the number of deer killed with vertical bows.

Johansen said biologists’ predictions for the two largest components of the whitetail harvest – the buck kill and the antlerless-deer kill – were pretty much spot-on.

“We figured we’d have an overall decline last fall, if for no other reason that deer would be harder for hunters to locate,” he explained. “When acorns are plentiful, deer tend to stay in the woods, where they’re less vulnerable to the gun. That certainly seems to be the way things played out.”

One wild card entered the mix shortly after the season started. Deer in 22 of the state’s 55 counties started dying of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD. Johansen believes the outbreak played at least small role in all four harvest declines.

“While we certainly didn’t have as severe an outbreak as Ohio, Kentucky and other states did, we certainly had localized [losses],” he said. “We weren’t as bad as losses we’ve had before from EHD, but those losses probably had an overall effect on the numbers.”

Johansen expects the disease’s effect on the deer population to be short-lived. “Deer numbers will bounce back pretty quickly,” he said. “They always have, and they always do. Overall, I think deer numbers are still very robust.”

DNR biologists will spend the coming weeks poring over the harvest statistics on a county-by-county basis, and will propose next fall’s deer-season lengths and bag limits based on those figures.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

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