John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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This week’s column explores the down side to operating shooting ranges on public property. West Virginia operates 27 of them, and lately has been fighting a losing battle with littering and vandalism:
West Virginia’s shooting ranges have become victims of their own success.
Maintained by the Division of Natural Resources at 27 state-run wildlife management areas and state forests, the ranges attract throngs of hunters and recreational shooters.
Ordinarily that would be a good thing. But lately, people seem to be abusing the ranges instead of using them.
“There’s been a major change in the way people act at the ranges,” DNR director Frank Jezioro told me.
“The ranges were originally built so hunters could go and sight in their rifles, to try out new equipment, and to teach young people to shoot. Now the ranges’ primary users are recreational shooters, many of whom are not hunters.
“An average hunter uses a range one or two times a year, and probably doesn’t shoot more than 25 rounds per visit. Recreational shooters are coming one to two times a week and are shooting dozens or even hundreds of rounds per visit.”
Even that wouldn’t be a problem, Jezioro added, were it not for the targets those high-volume shooters have been choosing.
“They’re bringing in a lot of military-style firearms, from AR-15s to .50-caliber rifles, and they don’t seem content to shoot paper targets with them,” he said. “They’re shooting at old TVs and computer monitors. They’re shooting at milk jugs, glass bottles and tin cans. They’re even bringing in watermelons to shoot, like they see on TV.”
What’s worse, some shooters are even taking aim at the DNR-provided steel frames that hold paper targets.
“I don’t know if it’s to see if their bullets can pierce metal, or if it’s just to hear the clang of the bullet hitting something. The bottom line is that they’re literally cutting the frames down,” Jezioro said.
The job of fixing the damage and cleaning up the litter usually falls to DNR wildlife managers.
“Those people should be spending their time planting wildlife plots, or mowing fields to provide better wildlife habitat,” Jezioro said. “Instead, they’re spending way too much time cleaning up and repairing ranges.”
The problem came to a head a couple of weeks ago at a range near Morgantown.
“One of our employees encountered a guy who had brought a sack of beer bottles and was planning to set them up as targets. The range was littered with shot-up propane bottles, bowling pins and electronic equipment. It looked like a landfill,” Jezioro said.
Similarly irresponsible behavior caused the range to be closed at Berkeley County’s Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area.
“Two years ago, people started putting targets on top of the earthen bank that serves as a backstop for the targets,” Jezioro explained. “Shots were going over the backstop and were hitting people’s houses. We couldn’t allow that to happen.”
The good news is that DNR officials aren’t taking the abuse lying down.
“We’ve instructed our people to clean up the ranges and to rebuild them, and we’re appealing to the shooting public to abide by the rules,” Jezioro said. “From now on, if we catch people shooting stuff up and leaving it, we’ll cite them for littering.”
He has simple advice for shooters who wish to avoid those $500 tickets.
“Clean up after yourselves,” he said. “Anything you bring in – paper targets, ammo boxes, beverage containers – you take out with you. Pick up your shotgun hulls and spent brass. Treat the place as if it were your own property, because really it is.”