Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Deer-regulation changes will be a tough sell

This week’s column looks into the difficulty of managing wildlife, and of managing the people who hunt wildlife:

There are a lot of things I’d like to be, at least for a while.
Montana fishing guide comes immediately to mind. Professional golfer. In my crazier moments, maybe even a bobsledder.
Under no circumstances, though, would I want to be a Division of Natural Resources official this year.
As you can read on the Gazette-Mail’s Woods & Waters page this week, DNR biologists want to pretty dramatically change the state’s antlerless-deer seasons, and the changes are mostly designed to reduce whitetail populations.
I don’t think hunters want populations reduced, and that’s why I wouldn’t want to be a DNR official. From now until the Natural Resources Commission votes on the DNR’s proposed changes later this year, agency administrators are going to field a lot of complaints.
They’re used to it, of course, but that doesn’t make it fun.
And that brings me to the point of this column: I’d like to dispel the myth that the DNR’s main job is to manage wildlife.
It isn’t.
DNR officials manage people. You. Me. Everyone who picks up a gun or a bow. We, in turn, help them to manage wildlife populations by killing more or fewer of the animals we choose to hunt.
Think about it. When deer or bear populations exceed the DNR’s prescribed numbers, agency officials don’t go out and kill of the excess. They manipulate the state’s hunting regulations in a way that encourages, nudges, shoves or bludgeons the sportsmen of the state into killing enough animals to bring the population back under control.
Conversely, when game populations drop below desired levels, DNR officials don’t use artificial insemination to ensure that enough new animals get born. They manipulate the regulations so that hunters kill fewer.
It’s a balancing act, one that alternately makes sportsmen happy or aggravates the daylights out of them.
My guess is that the DNR’s latest regulation proposals are going to aggravate more people than they please.
Savvy sportsmen probably anticipated at least slightly more liberal antlerless-deer regulations for the upcoming season. Dramatic rises and falls in the buck harvest always lead to changes, and last fall’s 32 percent rise was a sure-fire cure that more liberal regulations would be proposed.
In past years, that wouldn’t have been much of an issue. Sportsmen have grown accustomed to small year-to-year fluctuations in antlerless-deer regulations.
This year, though, just happened to be the year when DNR biologists drew up a spanking-new five-year Deer Operational Plan, one that is significantly different from all the others that were written between 1979 and the present.
The new plan took into account habitat data that hadn’t previously been available. It also took into account some of the sociological factors involved in deer management, such as landowners’ attitudes toward deer, effects on the forest products industry, effects on farmers and effects on vehicle owners. The plan’s bottom line is that DNR officials want to further reduce deer populations throughout most of the state.
The engineer-slash-scientist in me understands why the DNR wants to do what the plan proposes. The writer-slash-public relations side of me wonders why they chose to initiate the plan this year, just two years removed from one of the most catastrophically wretched deer seasons in state history.
Managing people is difficult enough; managing irate people is quite another.

Escaped elk ignites debate over disease

This week’s column deals with a government agency’s desire to kill an elk that escaped from a captive deer facility. Politicians won’t let them. Read on:

When someone in government does something stupid or embarrassing, the silence from official sources can be tomb-like.
Case in point? Let’s call it “The Saga of the Wandering Elk.”
Sometime last year, a bull elk escaped from a Greene Co., Pa., captive cervid facility and strolled across the Mason-Dixon line into Wetzel Co., W.Va.
It stayed there for a while, wandered back to Pennsylvania through the holidays, and recently turned up in Marshall County, W.Va., where it has become somewhat of a celebrity.
State wildlife officials are worried, and one can hardly blame them for their concern.
Elk can carry chronic wasting disease, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. The former kills elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer, and the latter two kill cattle.
Captive cervid facilities – places where deer and/or elk are kept behind tall fences and sold for their meat or shot for their antlers by wealthy people – are notorious incubators for chronic wasting disease.
Recent CWD outbreaks in Minnesota and Missouri wild deer were traced directly to captive cervid facilities. Division of Natural Resources officials worry that the footloose elk might also be diseased, and that it might infect local deer or cattle.
Marshall County isn’t exactly an agricultural hotspot, so the chance of spreading brucellosis or bovine tuberculosis is small. On the other hand, Marshall is home to one of West Virginia’s most highly concentrated deer populations. If chronic wasting disease gets started there, it could easily spread into the Northern Panhandle and down the entire Ohio Valley.
To prevent such a possibility, DNR officials would like to shoot the elk. They haven’t come out and said they would, but they issued a news release that strongly implied it.
Big mistake. Local citizens rallied around the elk. They took to Facebook and other social media to lobby on the creature’s behalf.
It’s an election year. The Legislature is in session. The last thing politicians want to do is to offend prospective voters.
So right now, DNR officials have been told not to pull the trigger. They also are forbidden from divulging which politico issued the stay of execution. In fact, they can’t comment about the elk at all.
More than a week ago, I called a DNR official and inquired about the critter’s status, and was told that all questions should be referred to Hoy Murphy, the agency’s public relations person.
I called Murphy. He wasn’t in, so I left a message on his voice mail. Shortly thereafter, I received the following e-mail:
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been told to put all media communications on hold for now. Things have been changing too fast for anyone to keep up, and they figure it’s better to have no response than to send out a response that may be outdated by the time it sees print. I promise I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Not to pick on Murphy, who is a good egg, but there aren’t many things that could change “too fast for anyone to keep up.” Either DNR sharpshooters are allowed to kill the elk or they aren’t.
There’s some question as to whether the elk can be killed on private property without the landowner’s permission, but again that’s an either-or situation.
My personal guess is that the only thing that’s rapidly changing is the potential for northern West Virginia’s deer to have a CWD outbreak. Should that happen, deer hunters should move heaven and earth to find out which politician prevented the DNR from doing something that’s clearly within its authority to do.

Deer-kill statistics are sometimes deceiving

John McCoy photo

The old expression, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” was probably written to describe deer hunters.

No matter where hunters are from, they always seem to believe they’d have better success if they hunted somewhere else.

Case in point: Ask West Virginians if they’d rather hunt deer in the Mountain State or in Missouri, and they’d probably choose Missouri. But would they really have it any better in the Show-Me State? Let’s take a look at the harvest totals from both states’ recently concluded whitetail seasons.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, Show-Me State hunters killed about 239,000 deer. According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Mountain State hunters killed slightly more than 133,000 deer. Advantage to Missouri, right?

Not necessarily.

Missouri’s land area is 69,704 square miles. Divide 239,000 by 69,704 square miles and you get a productivity average of 3.43 deer killed per square mile.

West Virginia’s land area is 24,229 square miles. Divide 24,229 by 133,000 and you get a productivity average of 5.49 deer per square mile.

Advantage West Virginia.

The devil in all this ciphering, is in the details. If statistics are available, it would be interesting to see which state produces more trophy bucks. Conventional wisdom would say Missouri. But West Virginia’s four bowhunting-only  counties account for about 75 Pope and Young Club bucks each year. That’s a slew of trophies.

The arguments could go back and forth forever, but the bottom line is this. Chances are many hunters in Missouri would jump at the chance to hunt in West Virginia, and vice versa. The grass is always greener….

Father’s accidental rifle discharge kills son

This is the second such accident this fall. The first happened in Idaho; this one happened here in West Virginia. Another family needs our thoughts and prayers.

From the Associated Press:

GAP MILLS, W.Va. (AP) — A Virginia deer hunter is dead after his father’s rifle discharged while being unloaded.
The incident occurred at about 2 p.m. Saturday near Gap Mills in southeastern West Virginia.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources says 18-year-old Travis B. Smith of Waynesboro was fatally shot when a rifle discharged as his father, 37-year-old Thomas Scott Wright of Fisherville, Va., was unloading it near the pair’s vehicle.
The incident remains under investigation.

Public’s help sought in deer slaughter case

From the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources:

FAIRMONT, W.Va. – At least 13 deer were shot, killed and left lying on the ground in the Fairmont area during the month prior to the start of the deer firearms seasons this week, and the Law Enforcement Section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is requesting help from the public to solve this case. The deer were found in the Apple Valley / Boothsville area, according to Capt. William Persinger of the WVDNR District 1 Office in Farmington.

Six deer were shot and killed within 25 yards of a residence in Apple Valley. Another seven deer were shot and killed on two additional properties near the same area, near several residences that were within 100 yards of each other.

“It has all the indications of being a copycat thrill killing case similar to others we’ve seen around the country,” Capt. Persinger said. “Some of the deer had small parts removed as if the shooters wanted to keep them as trophies, just like the traits we have seen with some serial killers.”

WVDNR Law Enforcement has been investigating and is asking for assistance from the public. Anyone who has information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of those involved in this crime is asked to contact Natural Resources Police Officers James Crawley, Randall Kocsis or Capt. William Persinger at the WVDNR District 1 Office headquarters in Farmington at 304-825-6787.

“Poaching is not just a violation of the law, it also deprives honest sportsmen of the opportunity to legally harvest game,” Capt. Persinger said.

Disgusting. Simply disgusting. Here’s hoping Capt. Persinger and his officers catch the perpetrators, and that the courts throw the entire library at them instead of just the book.

Hunters simply can’t catch a break

Spared by the rain

West Virginia deer hunters must feel like Joe Btsflpk.

Joe, for those of you too young to have read the Lil’ Abner comic strip, was an unhappy fellow who walked around with a rain cloud perpetually hanging over his head.

I’m beginning to wonder if our state’s hunters and ol’ Joe aren’t related. For what seems like the umpteenth year in a row, the opening day of the state’s firearm season for buck deer opened under rainy skies. Rain and fog blanketed the entire state during Monday’s opener.

When it rains anytime during the first three days of the 12-day season, hunters kill substantially fewer deer than expected. As one wildlife official told me, “When hunters get wet, they go home or go back to their camps. When they’re not in the woods, they’re not killing deer.”

That’s important, because the state’s buck season is literally the engine that drives the Division of Natural Resources’ deer-management program. The annual buck kill is the index by which all other deer-hunting seasons are set. When hunters kill lots of bucks, DNR officials assume the deer population is high, and allow hunters to kill  more female deer in an attempt to reduce the population. When hunters kill fewer bucks, DNR officials clamp down on doe hunting in an attempt to boost the population.

Bad weather during the first three days of the buck season throws a monkey wrench into the works. History shows that roughly three-fifths of the buck harvest takes place during those three days. Bad weather limits the kill and keeps antlerless-deer hunting regulations artificially conservative.

The past three buck seasons have been hammered by misfortune. An August 2009 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease depressed the whitetail population before the season. On opening day, snow, wind and rain kept hunters out of the woods. The harvest suffered.

Last year, a bumper mast crop kept deer scattered widely throughout the woods and less vulnerable to hunters, and rain early in the season served what amounted to a death knell to hunters’ hopes. The buck harvest plunged 32 percent from already depressed 2009 levels.

And now this — rain statewide on opening day, with more predicted for today and tomorrow.

So much for hunters’ hopes. For yet another year, they’ll have to endure that rain cloud hanging over their heads.

Steep fines for father-son bear poaching team

What is it about the water in Terra Alta, W.Va.? A couple of weeks ago, two men from that small town were fined more than $2,400 for poaching a trophy-class deer. Now two other Terra Altans have been ordered to pay more than $5,500 for poaching a black bear.

From the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources:

TERRA ALTA, W.Va. – A father and son from Terra Alta, W.Va., have been convicted of several violations of West Virginia’s wildlife laws following a two-week black bear poaching/killing investigation in Preston County.
The investigation was conducted by Natural Resources Police Officer Paul Ferguson after he received information from a confidential informant about a bear poaching. That investigation resulted in the arrest of Arnold Dalton, age 77, and his son Eric Dalton, age 47.
Arnold Dalton was charged with and convicted of illegal possession of a black bear and conspiracy to violate Chapter 20 of the West Virginia Code (wildlife law). He pled guilty on Nov. 14, 2011. His fines and court cost totaled $ 1,341.60.
Eric Dalton was charged with hunting without a bear stamp, illegally killing a black bear, illegal possession of a black bear, conspiring in a violation of Chapter 20. He pled guilty on Nov. 14, 2011, and his total fines, including court costs and replacement fees, were $4,163.20.
The total fines, court costs and replacement costs assessed in this case were $5,504.80. The subjects may also have their hunting privileges suspended for two years.

Big-buck fines for poaching big bucks

This one would cost you about $2,000

One of my stories for this week’s Gazette-Mail outdoors page points out the sea change that has taken place in the fines charged for poaching trophy deer in West Virginia:

Deer poachers are learning that West Virginia’s game laws are no longer cheap to violate.
Since a 2010 law increased the fines for killing deer with trophy antlers, state Natural Resources Police haven’t been shy about imposing what they call “enhanced penalties” on violators.
Several times already this season, officers have cited individuals for killing bucks with antler spreads greater than 14 inches. Courts haven’t yet levied fines in cases still pending, but they have handed down steep fines in others.
In Preston County, for example, 39-year-old Ernest Nice of Terra Alta was charged with illegally killing and possessing a buck with a 15 1/2-inch antler spread. Nice was assessed $1,782.40 in fines and court costs.
Nice’s alleged accomplice, 37-year-old Bryan Sypolt of Terra Alta, was fined $682.40 for hunting without a license, illegal possession of wildlife, and providing false information to an officer.
One thousand dollars of Nice’s fine related to the buck’s antler size. The new law established the “replacement fee” for killing a buck with a 14- to 16-inch spread at $1,000, a buck with a 16- to 18-inch spread at $1,500, a buck with an 18- to 20-inch spread at $2,000, and a buck with a spread of 20 inches or greater at $2,500.
Division of Natural Resources officials pushed for the law during the 2010 legislative session, hoping it would help curb the toll poachers had been taking on the state’s trophy-rich southern deer herd. In four counties – Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming – deer hunting with firearms has been illegal since 1979, and since then the area has attained a reputation for producing big-antlered bucks.
Only a handful of cases were prosecuted last year, mainly because trophy bucks were less abundant than in previous years. This year, by all accounts, the number of big-antlered whitetails has increased dramatically. So, apparently, has interest in poaching.
“We have a couple of cases pending down in Logan County already,” said Capt. Kaven Ransom, the head Natural Resources police officer for the state’s southwestern counties. “Both of them were eight-point bucks. One barely qualified for the enhanced fines; the other was pretty-good sized.”
Fines haven’t yet been levied, but Ransom expects the courts to stick to the letter of the law. “They’re pretty protective of their deer down there,” he said.
Capt. Larry Case of the Beckley office said poaching arrests are up in his neck of the woods, too, although so far only one of the arrests involved a trophy-sized buck.
“This fall, for whatever reason, we’re busier than usual,” he said. “We’re definitely getting more illegal deer kills, mainly in Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties.”
The trophy arrest occurred earlier this week, when Natural Resources Police officer Gabe Wood arrested 38-year-old Tommy Witt II of Princeton for the out-of-season shooting of a nine-point buck with an 18-inch antler spread. Witt faces a $2,000 trophy replacement fee and additional fines that could total as much as $1,000 more.
Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that several trophy-related arrests have been made in the state’s northern counties, which usually don’t produce many big-antlered bucks.
“In our neck of the woods, some serious arresting is going on in relation to the enhanced penalties,” said Capt. Bill Persinger. “In addition to the [Preston and Wetzel county cases] we’ve issued news releases about, we have a case pending in Harrison County, another in Preston and another in Wetzel.”
Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, called the timing of the arrests “perfect.”
“A lot of guys are out in the woods now, and they’re seeing some nice bucks. If they know they might have to pay $1,000 to $2,000 in additional fines, they might think twice about taking those bucks illegally,” he said.
Lt. Col. Jerry Jenkins, second in command at the DNR’s Law Enforcement Section, also believes the enhanced fines will help deter would-be poachers.
“As news of these arrests gets out, it will have a deterrent effect,” he said. “I know one thing: It sure is a far cry from the ‘old days,’ when poaching a buck of any size only brought you a fine of $20 plus court costs.”

From the Associated Press:

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. (AP) — A 16-year-old Bridgeport boy has been charged with illegally killing a trophy buck deer and could be fined $1,000 if convicted.
The Division of Natural Resources says a taxidermist reported the boy after he brought in a 10-point buck and claimed it had been shot with a bow and arrow.
Officers recovered a bullet and determined the deer was shot before rifle season.
When confronted with the bullet, the DNR says the teenager admitted he shot the deer with a rifle from a tree stand on Youth Hunting Day Oct. 29.
Only antlerless deer can be killed on Youth Hunting Days.
The teen was cited for killing deer during closed season, illegal possession of wildlife and improper checking of game. The case is in Harrison County Magistrate Court.

Here’s my question: What responsibility does the young person’s adult companion have in this matter? The law requires that all youth hunters be accompanied by a properly licensed adult who remains close enough to render immediate advice and assistance.

And the AP story significantly underestimates the fines. The $1,000 fine is only the “enhanced replacement fee” for a buck with a 14-inch minimum antler spread. There will likely be other fines — a minimum $200 standard whitetail replacement fee plus magistrate-determined fines for killing deer during a closed season, illegal possession of wildlife and improper checking of game. And on top of all those, court costs will be added.

If, indeed, a responsible adult was present during the hunt, he or she should be held at least partially responsible.

UPDATE: When I wrote the preceding paragraphs, I completely forgot that 16-year-olds are allowed to hunt during the youth season without adult supervision. Youths age 15 and under are required to have adults along; youths age 15 to 18 may hunt independently. For some reason, I completely brain-cramped on that point. Sorry.


Report: Elk sighted in northern W.Va.

A bull elk, possibly from a Greene County, Pa., captive cervid facility, has been sighted in Wetzel County, W.Va. From the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources:

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) has confirmed with officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) that at least two elk, including one adult bull and one cow, have escaped from a captive cervid facility (deer and elk farms) in Greene County, Pa.  Greene County shares a common border with Marshall, Wetzel and Monongalia counties in West Virginia. The elk escaped from a captive cervid facility located approximately three miles from the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border.

The PDA regulates captive cervid facilities in Pennsylvania. A representative of the agency was unaware if the recent escaped elk
were tagged. The WVDNR regulates captive cervid facilities in West Virginia.  In West Virginia, all captive cervids in breeding facilities
must be ear-tagged, and there are currently no reported elk escapes from any facility in West Virginia.

A bull elk has been seen recently in Wetzel County, W.Va., according to WVDNR officials. There have been no reports of cow elk
sightings in either Wetzel County, W.Va., or Greene County, Pa.  No free-ranging wild elk live within 150 miles of Wetzel County. The elk
sighted in Wetzel County is likely the escaped animal from the captive facility in Pennsylvania.

Contact between escaped captive deer or elk and free-ranging white-tailed deer increases the risk of disease transmission from the
captive animals to the native herd, according WVDNR biologists. The movement and/or escape of captive deer and elk increases this risk of contact and are one of the many possible modes of transmission for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) from captive cervids to free-ranging white-tailed deer.

The State of Missouri recently documented CWD in a captive cervid facility. Texas Parks and Wildlife had to euthanize a large
captive deer herd after illegal importation of white-tailed deer from a captive facility in Arkansas.

“Monitoring and protecting West Virginia’s deer herd from CWD and other diseases is crucial to West Virginia’s economy and its
natural resources,” said WVDNR Director Frank Jezioro.  “Deer hunting provides tremendous recreational opportunities for hunters and wildlife viewers, has a large economic impact on its rural communities, and brings in many out-of-state hunters each season to West Virginia.”

WVDNR advises residents in Marshall, Wetzel and Monongalia counties to contact the Farmington District Office at 304-825-6787 if
they see an elk in these counties. Hunters are reminded that it is illegal to harvest any free-ranging elk in West Virginia.