So West Virginia’s buck limit will remain at three, at least for the time being.
That became clear in the waning moments of last weekend’s meeting of the state Natural Resources Commission. The final item on the agenda was a vote to decide whether the limit should remain at three, or be reduced to two.
That vote didn’t happen. Instead, the seven commissioners voted to delay a final decision until next year’s second-quarter meeting, probably in early May.
Supporters of a two-buck limit were understandably furious. They came into the meeting dead sure there would be a vote. I don’t think they were as certain the vote would go in their favor, but they appeared confident it would.
They sat patiently through the first items on the agenda, which involved changes that would go into effect for the 2020 fishing and 2020-21 hunting seasons. In each case, commissioners voted unanimously to approve changes recommended to them by the Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources staff.
The next item on the agenda had two-buck proponents nodding and smiling in agreement. Kip Adams, national director of conservation for the Quality Deer Management Association, made a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation on the value of lower buck limits.
The public-comment portion of the meeting followed Adams’ briefing. Of the 14 people who spoke, 11 advocated a lower buck limit. The other three spoke about unrelated issues.
Two-buck fever was running hot when DNR director Steve McDaniel took the floor to comment on the issue. McDaniel’s opening words cooled the atmosphere down a degree or two.
“My job is to make sure we maintain the integrity of the entire process,” he said. “One of the biggest things I want to do is to do no harm. I want to give an ear to all sides of an issue.”
With that, he turned the microphone over to Zack Brown, the DNR’s federal aid coordinator, to go over the results of a $117,000 survey the DNR commissioned to get a clearer view of hunters’ attitudes toward lower buck limits.
Brown said the survey, conducted by the nationally respected Southwick Associates polling firm, showed that licensed resident hunters favored a buck-limit reduction by a margin of 56 percent to 40 percent. Non-licensed landowners favored it by a 52-40 margin, and non-resident license holders favored it by a 52-41 margin.
Scott Cline, who works for the DNR’s Administrative Section, then made a brief presentation on the financial impact a two-buck limit would have on the agency. Cline said the loss of extra-buck license sales would cause the agency to lose $828,000 during the first three years after the limit went into effect. McDaniel followed Cline’s comments with an even worse outlook: After losses due to overall declines in license sales were factored in, the total would rise to nearly $1.5 million.
The unpleasant financial outlook didn’t appear to set well with two-buck advocates. What followed upset them even more.
DNR wildlife chief Paul Johansen said that, from a biological perspective, a buck-limit didn’t make sense. “Yearling antlered buck mortality is not excessive here in West Virginia,” he said. “Any benefits to antler size [from a lower limit] would be minimal.”
Johansen went on to say that adoption of a two-buck limit “would mislead the hunting public because it would not produce a noticeable shift in buck age structure. The Wildlife Resources Section recommends that the limit remain the same.”
Jim Crum, the DNR’s deer project leader, then addressed commissioner Kenny Wilson’s question about how a lowered limit would affect the Eastern Panhandle counties where chronic wasting disease has been discovered. Crum said the best way to prevent the disease’s spread is to kill deer while they’re young.
“If a two-buck limit is adopted, I would strongly suggest we still keep a three-buck limit in the seven counties with CWD,” he added.
Discussion among the commissioners indicated a clear split in the panel’s willingness to consider an immediate vote on a lowered limit. One of the seven clearly advocated a lower limit, and two others indicated they would be willing to go along if a way could be found to offset the projected financial losses.
McDaniel said, in no uncertain terms, that the DNR was not proposing an increase in license fees, nor would they consider proposing one. He said the fee-increase question would have to be decided in the halls of the Legislature.
By then, two-buck advocates were started to look stunned. They clearly hadn’t expected momentum to shift against them.
When McDaniel called for a motion on the two-buck question, commissioner Greg Burnette of Kanawha County made it. No one seconded it.
Commissioner Tom Dotson of Greenbrier County then proposed that the commission decide the issue at the May 2020 meeting, by which time the DNR would ostensibly have the results on a second Southwick study designed to determine how the public would want hunting-license fees to be restructured.
Dotson’s motion passed unanimously. Next spring, the question will be settled.
Or will it?
The next legislative session will fall during an election year. Persuading lawmakers to restructure hunting-license fees in an election year will be difficult, if not downright impossible.
The Southwick survey further complicates things. If it’s not finished by the time the Legislature convenes, lawmakers who draft license-fee legislation will literally be flying blind, unaware of what the public might want.
Two-buck proponents have vowed to blitz the Legislature with demands to impose a two-buck limit and revamp the fee structure. No doubt they will try.
Maybe someday all this will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction, and hunters will be able to concentrate more on deer hunting than on politics. As far as I’m concerned, that day cannot come soon enough.