Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results

This 9-foot, 674-pound bear was killed in Lunenburg County by D.J. Lacks

Courtesy of D.J. Lacks

This 9-foot, 674-pound bear was killed in Lunenburg County by D.J. Lacks

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.


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Hunters in Virginia killed fewer deer during the recent season, but the decline overall was nowhere near what many sportsmen had expected. The tally was 213,597 bucks and does, which was an eight-percent drop from the previous season.

I don’t know how many hunters told me they just weren’t seeing deer like they normally do, and my hunts confirmed that. I’m still not seeing many, even though the season has ended.

“This was a terrible season for all of us in my group,” said J. Anthony Brown. “We hunted often, and no one hardly even saw any deer during the rifle or late-muzzleloading season. We were hunting on 200 acres of wooded property, a hunt club, in Franklin County.”

It was worse in Wise County, according to Greg Wright, who told me the deer population “is horrible; horrible.” He added, “You are lucky to even see a deer” or find a track when it snows on national forest land.

Even so, wildlife officials of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries say there is no need to get alarmed.

“Although there were some counties with pretty significant one-year declines, there is nothing really troubling in our harvest data,” said Nelson Lafon, deer project coordinator for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

A number of factors are getting the blame for the decline, including disease, predation by coyotes and bears, even the lack of Sunday hunting. But two factors stand out. One, there was an abundant acorn crop this past fall that kept deer in the woods where they were less vulnerable to hunters. Another is that the deer population is declining across much of the state, and that is by design.

“Certainly some hunters may be concerned about smaller herds than they saw in recent years, but remember that our deer plan objectives are set to achieve a level compatible with the needs of all citizens,” Lafon said.

In the western part of the state, where many of the “no deer” complaints came from, the kill actually was closer to the previous year than in the east. The southwest saw only a three-percent decline. In the northern mountains, along the Shenandoah Valley, the kill virtually was unchanged. In the Tidewater area, it was off 15 percent; in the Piedmont, 8 to 9 percent. Some counties in the east had significant problems with EHD disease.

Most of the harvest decline came from a 13-percent drop in the doe kill. The antlered buck kill was down only two percent. The doe kill has been at record levels the previous six consecutive hunting seasons.

“Besides the national forest, where the public would like to see larger herds, and Northern Virginia, where we’ve still not reduced herds enough, we’re doing pretty well,” said Lafon.

The abundant mast crop of last fall and the relatively mild winter we are experiencing should mean that bucks will be able to grow bragging-size racks for the coming season.

Bear kill

Prior to 2000, Virginia’s reported bear kill never exceeded 1,000 animals. Then came the boom. The past season, it reached 2,144, the fourth year out of the past five that it has exceeded the 2,000 mark. This year’s take represented a seven-percent increase over the previous season.

Bear haven’t just become more numerous and extended their range, they have gotten bigger. The talk of the season was a 674-pound bear killed by Danny Ray Lacks II in Lunenburg County in early December. No one will be surprised to see it make the record book when bear, deer and turkeys are scored at the Virginia’s Big Game Trophy Show this fall.

Virginia’s bear population is expected to continue trending upward. It should get a boost from the fact that only 36 percent of the bears killed were females. The three previous years, that figure was 42 percent. The lower the female take the more breeders are saved.

Nearby states also saw hefty bear kills. West Virginia set a state record with a kill of 2,683, 34-percent higher than the previous season. Pennsylvania’s kill of 3,632 was the third-best ever. West Virginia credited a heavy oak mast crop with keeping the bears active and offering targets for hunters.

Bowhunters reported killing 513 bears in Virginia, which was 24 percent of the total. That was down from the previous three-year average of 33 percent. Officials say bowhunters experience less success when mast is abundant. That should please hound hunters, who believe bowhunters are getting a disproportional large chunk of the pie.

Muzzleloaders accounted for 415 bears, or 19 percent of the total, the most since a special muzzleloading bear season was set. 

Some 1,216 bears-- 57 percent--were taken by modern firearm’s hunters. Of that, 59 percent were claimed by hound hunters. Rockingham, Craig and Nelson were the top bear kill producers.

Wild turkey kill

There is good news on the turkey front. The kill of 4,432 toms and hens during the fall season was 28-percent above the previous season, and the highest in five years. That makes two back-to-back seasons that have shown significant gains.

Counties west of the Blue Ridge saw a whopping 37-percent increase. Bedford County led the pack with 151 birds. Eastern counties were up 21 percent.

“It looks pretty good,” said Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the DGIF.

The special January season, in its second year, produced 245 birds. It is doing what it was designed to do, which is to allocate more opportunities for sportsmen to hunt. Officials said the late season has received many positive comments.

The special kid’s fall turkey hunting day accounted for 60 birds.

Officials credited a strong mast crop and good reproduction for the increased harvest.

Both fall and spring hunters should benefit from the two back-to-back years of good recruitment.

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