West Virginia’s wildlife will have more to eat this fall. Hunters may, too, but they’ll have to work for it.
Division of Natural Resources officials recently completed their annual Mast Survey and Hunter Outlook report, and overall the numbers look pretty good. The combined index for all mast-producing species rose 11.6 percent from last year and came in 5.5 percent above the long-term average.
This is great news for animals, because they’ll be well-fed and better able to survive the rigors of the oncoming winter. It’s not-so-great news for hunters, who may have trouble finding where those animals are eating whatever they’re eating.
To compile the mast report, DNR workers and volunteers surveyed 263 locations throughout the state, measuring the productivity of 18 species of trees and shrubs.
They documented a 9 percent rise in the index from last year. Black and red oak acorns showed the greatest gain, up 341 percent. Scarlet oak rose 228 percent. Other big gainers included black cherry, up 51 percent; scrub oak, up 49 percent; hawthorn, up 47 percent; and crabapple, up 36 percent.
There were losers, too, including two important ones. The white oak index plunged 63 percent, and the chestnut oak crop fell 54 percent. DNR officials believe those declines more than offset the gains in black/red oak and scarlet oak, so overall the combined oak index is down a bit.
While dramatic, the year-over-year changes aren’t as important as the current numbers’ comparison to the long-term (48-year) average.
By that measure, the state has 45 percent more walnut, 30 percent more black and red oak, 21 percent more crabapple, 18 percent more hawthorn and 16 percent more scarlet oak, black cherry, dogwood and apple than usual.
Only five species came in below the long-term average: chestnut oak (-49), white oak (-47), sassafras (-19), greenbrier (-6) and blackberry (-3).
Ordinarily, an improved mast crop isn’t particularly good news for hunters. When mast is scarce, animals congregate around what little food is available and become easier to find and “pattern.” When mast is abundant, animals remain dispersed throughout the woods and their movements become more difficult to predict.
According to the report’s authors, this year is kind of a “tweener” because acorns — the state’s most important mast crop — were abundant in some areas and scarce in others.
“The apparently ‘spotty’ and heterogeneous nature of production of acorns across the landscape in 2019 should allow diligent hunters to effectively pursue game such as squirrels, raccoons, bears, boars and deer in successful fashion, provided they scout the areas they plan to hunt,” read a paragraph in the report’s summary.
That’s biologist-speak for “Hey, hunters! Get off your duffs and spend enough time in the woods to determine which oak trees ‘hit’ and which ones ‘missed.’ You’ll have an easier time of it if you do!”
It’s good advice in any season, and even more so this year.