As we see decreases in the harvest of high profile game animals in Maryland and West Virginia, we tend to think it has only to do with the size of the deer herds or the turkey flocks.
Obviously, the density of the animal population is a factor. That can’t be denied.
But there is another animal that no state or federal natural resources agency has a real handle on and that is the hunter. If wildlife management is an exact science, hunter management is even more difficult to pigeonhole.
I believe the human factor is playing a large role in the unfolding of what hunting has become.
Wildlife managers everywhere are trying to find ways to not only retain hunters, but to bring new ones to the avocation. After all, state wildlife management is funded by the sale of hunting licenses.
There have been some successes, but the truth remains that the number of hunters is down significantly from previous decades.
Fewer hunters will mean fewer animals bagged and tagged, no matter how much the daily limits would be inflated.
The hunters of small game such as squirrels, rabbits, grouse and turkeys in autumn have declined exponentially. That is due in large part to the excellent deer hunting and spring gobbler hunting beginning about 25 years ago. Also, attrition is moving older folks out of the hunting population. They are the ones who grew up shooting at little critters because deer populations were minimal.
Right here in Allegany County, I know of a handful of properties, totalling thousands of acres, where hunting was a prime use, but is no longer allowed by the new owners.
One property used to account for 25 to 30 bucks during the Maryland firearms season and now accounts for zero. There is no reason to believe that a similar pattern is not taking place throughout Maryland. Start multiplying those numbers and you will have a decent-sized slice of the decreasing-harvest pie.
The expansion of the human population, especially into homes in what used to be wildlife habitat, has a double whammy. The home takes up space that used to be covered with oak trees and berry bushes. The home also is protected by a safety zone in which hunters may not shoot.
The zone in Maryland is 150 yards and even includes the shooting of arrows. The zone in West Virginia is 500 feet, but does not prohibit archery, just firearms.
Rich Rogers, wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in Romney, said that the explosion of second homes and the safety zones that came with them has put 38 percent of Hampshire County off limits for shooting.
Hunting, especially for deer, is a lot different than it was when I was first carrying a rifle through the woods in the 1950s and 1960s.
We didn’t know what a ground blind was. Neither had we heard of a tree stand. Nobody baited deer. The most frequent technique was to get a bunch of hunters together and drive deer, that is have one group walk through the woods in an attempt to push deer to another group that was waiting for them.
I was in some drives, but I never liked them much.
My prefered way to hunt was to still-hunt, that is slip as slowly and silently through the woods in an attempt to come within rifle range of a buck. There was no doe hunting.
Nowadays, the still-hunter or stalker is almost a thing of the past in the eastern deer woods. Some of the blinds and tree stands now in use could pass an inspection intended for a motel room, offering warmth and comfort as well as an elevated view of surrounding acreage.
This style of hunting does not move deer through the woods. Deer that move get killed. Deer that stay in one place do not. This style of hunting depends on bait or natural movement to bring the buck into view and range.
I agree wholeheartedly with a recent letter in Outdoors Mailbox that we have changed our expectations about what kind of buck we want to kill. I agree as well that this attitude has been influenced greatly by television shows about deer hunting.
These shows don’t show a spike or a forkhorn biting the dust, only 10- and 12-pointers from the Midwest with massive antlers. Often, the hunter passes up what would be a buck of a lifetime for most of us. “Too small,” he will say of the 8-point with a 19-inch spread. “He’ll be a good deer in a couple years.”
Well, you can wait for a TV buck if you want, but if the landowner allows, I’m slapping a tag on a legal buck if he comes walking down the trail.
However, I know not everybody thinks the way I do.
In fact, I believe that one contributing factor to our declining buck harvest numbers throughout this region is that hunters are passing on spikes, forks and small 6-points. Some of these hunters complete the season without filling a tag. Most of them are fine with that, but it factors into the harvest report.
In fact, many clubs or landowners have more restrictive rules than the state, requiring bucks to have a certain number of points or a certain spread before a broadhead or 150 grains of lead can be sent at them. That is certainly their perogative, but this, too, suppresses harvest numbers. I hunt in such places and am happy to abide.
The difficult economic times of recent years may have some impact.
I tend to think that it is pretty tough to keep a hillbilly out of the deer woods in November and December, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are those who did not buy licenses or the gas to reach the hunting grounds.
Curtis Taylor, head wildlife guy in West Virginia, recently attributed a decline in the spring gobbler harvest to the cost of gas, at least in part.
On the other hand, maybe a lot of people went hunting and killed deer or turkeys in spite of these fiscal obstacles and we just don’t know about it. Know what I’m saying?
Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.