Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

A hunting season’s sad decline

Having trouble fitting in

It’s been disappointing for me to watch the decline of wild boar hunting in southern West Virginia. I grew up at the mouth of the hollow where the boars were first stocked, and have followed the boar story closely since the first stocking.

My column in this week’s Sunday Gazette-Mail explains what has happened to the hogs, and why hunters seem to have lost their enthusiasm for hunting them:

Not that long ago, wild boar hunting was all the rage in Southern West Virginia. Now it’s little more than an afterthought.
This year’s firearm season for boars opened Saturday. It would surprise me if more than a few dozen hunters went gunning for the wary, reclusive animals, even though state wildlife officials believe there are plenty to hunt.
“We had a record-breaking mast crop last year, and that led to [the boars having] big litters last spring,” said Kem Shaw, assistant wildlife biologist for the state’s southwestern counties.
“Our wildlife manager in the area, Steve Houchins, said he’s been seeing lots of hog sign. The boars are there. It’s just a matter of the hunters finding them.”
That’s been the rub, at least in recent seasons. The portion of West Virginia where boars are most abundant encompasses some of the state’s most difficult terrain. In the 1980s and 1990s, when boars were more plentiful, hunters could justify the effort it took to hunt there. But that was then.
Division of Natural Resources officials first stocked wild boars into the Spruce Laurel of Logan and Boone counties in 1971.
“At that time, deer and bears were extremely scarce in that part of the state, and turkeys were nonexistent,” said Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief. “We stocked the boars to create a big-game hunting opportunity in the area.”
The boars multiplied quickly. Their home range eventually spread more widely into Boone and Logan counties, and even into nearby Raleigh and Wyoming counties.
Hunting began in 1979. DNR officials issued only 200 permits, and the first year’s harvest totaled just three boars.
As the boar population expanded, so did the number of permits. By the late 1980s, DNR officials allotted 6,000 permits a year simply to keep up with the demand.
Boar hunting peaked in 1995, when hunters bagged a record 158 animals. After that, though, Southern West Virginia’s hog population suffered a dramatic decline. Harvests tapered off sharply. In 2002, the kill shrank to just 38.
“There are a lot of theories as to what happened,” Shaw explained. “One is that coyotes moved into the area and began killing piglets. Another is that competition for food became more intense as deer, bear and turkey populations expanded.
“The most likely reason is the amount of mountaintop-removal mining being done. A hog’s home range is there one year, and the next year the top of the mountain is gone. It has to have an impact on them.”
Alarmed by the boars’ decline, DNR officials decided in 2003 to reduce hunting opportunities for the species. They shrank the traditional two-part firearm season, held in late October and late December, to a single eight-day October season. At the same time, though, they abandoned the lottery-drawn permit system. Now anyone with a valid big-game license can go boar hunting.
The timing of today’s late-October season probably works against it. Right now, hunters in southern West Virginia are focused on bowhunting for trophy bucks, not pounding the steep hillsides in search of boar sign.
Still, Shaw believes boar hunting will regain some of its former popularity.
“The hogs are there, and they’re there in pretty decent numbers,” he said. “Right now, they’re an underutilized resource. If hunters would just take the time to go after them, I have no doubt that harvest totals would increase.
“I would stress to those hunters that coal companies own almost all the land in the wild-boar area. Hunters who take advantage of that access should be careful to stay away from areas being actively mined.”

Elk becoming established in West Virginia

Moving into West Virginia

Slowly but surely, it’s happening; elk are taking up residence in West Virginia.

Game cameras set out by Division of Natural Resources workers have have recently taken photos of several individual elk, most of them in Mingo County, some in Logan County. That most of them have ended up in Mingo County is not surprising, because Mingo shares a border with elk-rich Pike County, Ky. The Tug Fork River forms the boundary, and it’s not especially wide or deep. Unless the river is in flood, elk can easily wade or swim across.

It will likely be years — maybe even decades — before elk become abundant enough to be hunted in the Mountain State. The management plan DNR officials finalized last year calls for a passive approach toward management. In other words, they’ll monitor elk populations as more and more of the animals migrate in from neighboring Kentucky and Virginia, but will not supplement those numbers in any way. Only when the population has “naturally” grown to a predetermined density (number of animals per square mile) will the DNR begin to actively manage them.

It’s likely to be quite a while before that happens, but it’s good to see that “volunteer” elk are doing their part to make it happen.

A new tool in the fight against wildlife crime

In the never-ending war against poaching and other wildlife-related crimes, West Virginia’s law enforcement forces now have a new weapon — the Internet.

From the Associated Press:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The state Division of Natural Resources now has a way online for turning in poaching and other illegal wildlife activities.
Tips can be reported to the DNR’s law enforcement section’s website at www.wvdnr.gov.
Lt. Col. Jerry Jenkins says the DNR has a limited number of police officers in the field, so the public plays a vital role in protecting natural resources by reporting violations.
Witnesses to a potential violation are asked to collect as much information as possible without confronting the individual under suspicion. Jenkins says helpful information includes a description of the people involved and any vehicles and license plates, the type of violation and the time it occurred.
He says those who report such crimes will remain anonymous.

To expand some on AP’s brief treatment:

Lt. Col. Jenkins described the DNR’s network of field officers as “limited.” What he really meant was “paper-thin.”

By law, the Division of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Section can have no more than 120 officers. With retirements and attrition, the roster is seldom full. Also, consider that some of those officers are in administrative positions and never make it into the field. Realistically, the state has about 90 officers to cover 55 counties that encompass 24,181 square miles. That’s paper-thin.

Those officers need help. The new online reporting form is a tool that allows West Virginians who witness wildlife crimes to report them quickly and anonymously.

The AP piece listed the URL as the DNR’s general website address. The specific address is http://www.wvdnr.gov/LEnforce/Poachers.shtm

Use it, please.

The endless hunting season

This week’s Gazette-Mail column outlines how a West Virginian could start hunting Sept. 1 and continue nonstop through the last day of February — theoretically, of course…

It’s hard to believe that West Virginia’s hunting season starts in less than two weeks.
It does, though, and from there it continues non-stop until the final day of February.
Once upon a time, we didn’t start hunting this early. Deer weren’t nearly as abundant, bears and turkeys were present in only a handful of counties, and wild boar and Canada geese hadn’t yet been stocked.
Things began to change in the early 1970s. The deer herd’s rapid growth triggered a bowhunting boom in the early 1980s and a blackpowder boom in the early 1990s. Division of Natural Resources officials created bow and blackpowder seasons, and then expanded them.
Antlerless deer hunting went from taboo to must-do. DNR administrators started with a conservative antlerless-deer season and gradually extended its length and scope.
Bear populations exploded. Wildlife officials sought to curb the explosion by creating special bear seasons in September and November.
An ambitious trap-and-transplant program brought turkeys to all 55 counties. Wildlife officials expanded the fall season accordingly.
DNR administrators began stocking wild boars in 1971 and Canada geese in 1977. Both were well established by the early 1990s. Boar populations later declined, but geese became so abundant that officials set up a special early September season to harvest the surplus.
The cumulative result is that any hunter so inclined could start taking game on Sept. 1 and could continue without a break until Feb. 29. Here’s how the seasons would lay out:
After opening the early goose season at sunup on Sept. 1, our imaginary hunter could take part in the dove-season opener at noon. He could continue hunting doves or geese through Sept. 10, when the squirrel season comes in.
He’d get in a day of squirrel hunting (two if he lived in a Sunday-hunting county) before Sept. 12, opening day of the early archery season for antlerless deer. On Sept. 17, that season would segue into the early muzzleloader season for antlerless deer, which would in turn segue into the Sept. 26 opener for the early firearm season for black bears.
Our fictional sportsman could then resume his quest for squirrels until the Oct. 1 opening day of the main archery season for deer, and he could hunt for whitetails until Oct. 15, when he could begin bowhunting for bears or wild boars, or start shotgun hunting for grouse or woodcock.
He might want to spend a day or two turkey hunting after that season’s Oct. 22 opener. After that, he could go back to small-game hunting in earnest on Nov. 5, when the quail, pheasant, rabbit, snowshoe hare, fox and bobcat seasons commence.
He could sample all that variety until Nov. 21, when firearm hunting for deer starts getting cranked up. The buck and concurrent doe-buck seasons begin then, and they continue until Dec. 5, when the traditional antlerless-deer season takes over.
The antlerless season gives way to the traditional muzzleloader season on Dec. 12, and our imaginary hunter could remain in blackpowder bliss until Dec. 14, when the third segment of the duck season kicks off.
Duck hunting would continue through Jan. 28. After that, goose, grouse, rabbit and varmint hunting continue all the way through Feb. 29.
Then, and only then, could our hunter rest – and dream of April 21, when the spring turkey season opens.

Shooting ranges are getting shot up

Too popular?

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.”

An urban deer hunt for Buckhannon?

An urban problem

Add Buckhannon to the growing list of West Virginia cities where deer have become overpopulated.

Mayor Kenny Davidson apparently got tired of hearing deer-damage complaints from city residents. At the last city council meeting, Davidson announced that he would push for an ordinance that would allow bowhunters to kill deer within the city limits.

The full story is here, in the Record-Delta.

Cities and towns that conduct urban hunts include Charleston, Weirton, Wheeling, Lewisburg and Bridgeport. Hunts were held in Barboursville in recent years, and Morgantown is currently considering an ordinance that would allow a hunt this fall.

Division of Natural Resources officials say controlled hunts are, by far, the most effective (and cost-effective) way to thin deer herds in urban areas.

If you’re planning to go boating between June 24 and 26, you might want to go light on the booze.

From the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ Law Enforcement Section:

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Natural Resources Police Officers with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) will participate in Operation Dry Water and will be out in force June 24-26 looking for boaters whose Blood Alcohol Content exceeds the state limit of .08 percent. Operation Dry Water will include increased patrols, breathalyzer tests, and checkpoints as well as boater education.
“We intend to stop intoxicated boaters and to educate as many boaters as possible about the hazards of Boating Under the Influence (BUI),” said Lt. Tim Coleman, DNR’s State Boating Safety Program coordinator. DNR has added six additional patrol boats to its fleet this year and will be patrolling all major rivers and lakes during the boating season.
A boat operator or passenger with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit runs a significantly increased risk of being involved in a boating accident. When impaired by alcohol, boating accidents are more likely and more deadly for both passengers and boat operators, many of whom capsize their vessel or simply fall overboard.
BUI is a primary contributing factor in nearly one in five boating fatalities nationwide, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Five boating-related fatalities have been recorded in West Virginia in 2011.
Operation Dry Water, a multi-agency, education and enforcement initiative launched by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA ) in 2009 in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, puts thousands of local, state and federal marine law enforcement officers on the water nationwide the last weekend in June to give BUI enforcement high visibility during the peak boating season.
“There will be arrests this weekend, and some boaters will face the consequences of boating under the influence,” said Lt. Coleman “We want recreational boaters to enjoy themselves, but there will be zero tolerance for BUI.”
Operation Dry Water is a joint program of the West Virginia DNR, NASBLA, the U.S. Coast Guard and several local law enforcement agencies.
For more information, visit http://www.operationdrywater.org.

Deer complaints rampant in Parkersburg

Rampant in Parkersburg, at least for now

Apparently the good citizens of West Virginia’s third-largest city have lost their affection for Bambi.

From the Associated Press:

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — A Division of Natural Resources wildlife biologist says complaints about deer in Parkersburg are increasing and the city should consider an urban hunt.
Jeff McCrady tells the Parkersburg News and Sentinel that he’s been getting two to three calls a day from residents about deer inside the city.
The calls include complaints about deer ravaging gardens and flowers and concerns about fawns.
McCrady says he’s telling residents to contact City Council members and the mayor’s office and ask whether they’re interested in revisiting a proposed urban deer hunt.
Council rejected the proposal last year.

That last paragraph practically tells the entire story. Successful urban deer hunts have been held in Wheeling, Weirton, Barboursville, Charleston and other West Virginia cities and towns. Why are Parkersburg’s elected officials so reluctant to follow suit?

Wood County, where Parkersburg is located, is home to one of the state’s densest whitetail populations. Every year, Wood ranks among the most productive deer-hunting counties. It stands to reason that the county’s hunters would eagerly embrace an urban hunt, especially since deer killed during urban hunts don’t count toward hunters’ yearly bag limits.

An urban hunt seems logical. To spurn an urban hunt seems illogical. Then again, we’re talking about a town where people think it’s a good idea to name an athletic facility “Stadium Field.”

New info on fatal black bear attacks

Black bear

Female black bears with cubs can be real killers, right?

Wrong.

In all the fatal attacks on humans since 1900, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators have been lone male bears looking for food. That’s one finding in a study published in a recent edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management.

The study also showed that the incidence of black-bear-related fatalities has increased in recent years.  Fifty-four of the 63 fatal attacks between 1910 and 2009 occurred after 1960.

When you think about it, that stands to reason. Suburban sprawl into rural areas began not long before that, and has steadily increased ever since. Bear populations have also increased.

The most disturbing statistic in the study is that 88 percent of the attacks were predatory, from bears that viewed humans as a food source.

So far here in West Virginia, there has been only one serious attack on a human by a black bear, and it was neither fatal nor predatory. In 2003, bear hunter Philip Propst of Bartow was attacked on Cheat Mountain when his hounds cornered a bear in a narrow crevice between two huge boulders. When the bear attacked the dogs, Propst moved in to try to save them. The bear broke past the dogs and ran over Propst, who had no room to maneuver. When Propst threw his hands up to defend himself, the bear bit them, breaking bones in the process.

West Virginia Division of Natural Resources officials recently authorized a study of black bears in Charleston, Beckley and Morgantown, three of the state’s largest cities and three of the areas where nuisance bears are most abundant. Similar studies are underway in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, two other states where bears move in and out of urban and suburban areas.

If the research helps prevent future fatal bear attacks, it will be worth every penny it costs.

All-day gobbler hunting, revisited

Photo by Maslowski/NWTF

Here’s today’s Gazette-Mail follow-up to the blog post I had a couple of weeks ago about all-day spring gobbler hunting during the season’s final weeks:

Even though three neighboring states now allow late-season spring turkey hunters to hunt during the afternoon, don’t expect West Virginia to follow suit – at least not yet.
The state’s top wildlife official believes afternoon hunting should not be adopted in the Mountain State without another significant hunting-regulation change.
“If we did away with [the use of] rifles [during the spring season], we’d consider all-day hunting,” said Curtis Taylor, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “If you’re going to hunt turkeys all day, you have to have a level playing field.”
Taylor said the DNR’s extensive study of radio-collared hen turkeys revealed that 34 percent of all hens that perished each spring were killed illegally.
“Rifles make it too easy to pick birds off their roosts, and it makes it too easy to kill birds that are out feeding in fields,” he explained. “When you hunt birds in the afternoon in the spring season, most of the time you set up next to a field and wait for some birds to show up for their afternoon feed. With a rifle, you don’t have to call turkeys close. Basically you reduce them to groundhog status; you can set up 100 or 200 yards away and just pick them off.”
Pennsylvania recently became the third neighboring state to begin allowing all-day hunting during the final two weeks of the season. Virginia and Ohio had previously adopted similar regulations.
Of the three, Virginia is the only one that allows spring-gobbler hunting with rifles.
“I suspect that rifle use there increased after they adopted afternoon hunting,” Taylor said. “I’ve hunted in states where you can hunt all day. I hunt with a shotgun, but I learned that the standard practice is to set up over a field and put out some decoys. For some hunters, there would be a lot of temptation to use bait, and a lot of reason to use rifles.
“In my humble opinion, going to those regulations here would increase the number of people going out in the afternoon with rifles. Either they’d start using over-and-under shotgun-rifle combos or they’d hunt with shotguns in the morning and go back to their trucks at noon to swap the shotguns for rifles.”
The subject of late-season all-day hunting became a hot topic earlier this year when James Earl Kennamer, a nationally renowned turkey expert, wrote a column in Turkey Country magazine advocating the idea.
“James Earl said there was no reason why turkeys couldn’t be hunted all day, but he added that it would be up to the individual states,” Taylor said. “I had a long talk with him about it when we were hunting in Florida.”
Taylor said that in addition to the hen-mortality question, he detailed other potential pitfalls that late-season hunting might create for West Virginia’s turkey population.
“[Traditional shotgun-wielding] hunters could start killing a lower percentage of mature gobblers,” he predicted. “The surveys say everyone wants to kill a big, mature gobbler. If fewer hunters are able to kill mature toms, hunter satisfaction could take a hit.
“I also perceive [all-day hunting] as a slippery slope toward starting seasons earlier, which I am against. All the states that have gone to afternoon hunts except Pennsylvania have gone to an earlier opening day, and I’ve heard that Pennsylvania plans to open earlier next year.”
Taylor said studies have shown that the earlier a spring season starts, the higher the illegal kill of hens. “Dead hens lay no eggs,” he added.
“A lot of southern states that open their seasons earlier in the spring [than West Virginia] are experiencing serious declines in their turkey populations. They’re starting to wonder if they aren’t starting their seasons too early.”
Despite his misgivings, Taylor acknowledged that all-day hunting would provide sportsmen with additional recreational opportunities.
“I could see some benefit to it,” he said. “But the only way to do it and make it fair would be to have a shotgun-only season.”