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Hunting seasons expanding, back up into summer

Hunting is big in West Virginia - so big, in fact, there aren't enough days in the fall to squeeze it all in.

So state wildlife officials are doing the only thing they can do. They're moving seasons from the fall into late summer. Five years ago, only two seasons began in September. This year, the number climbs to six.

Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources, said the shift toward earlier seasons was a move agency officials simply had to make.

"If I had a magic wand and could generate additional fall hunting days I'd do it," Johansen said. "Hunting is so near and dear to us West Virginians that we have trouble satisfying the need. There are lots of critters to pursue, and lots of people who want to pursue them. We want to accommodate as many of those interests as possible.

"The more seasons we open, though, the more things get compressed. We don't want to create conflicts among user groups, so we've tried to capture some additional days by adding days on the front end of the season."

The trend began four years ago when members of the state Natural Resources Commission created two new antlerless-deer seasons and scheduled them for mid to late September. They also created a September firearm season for black bears in counties where bear populations are too high.

Last year, commission members voted to open squirrel season in early September instead of early October. This last spring, they voted to eliminate the two September antlerless-deer seasons and open the archery seasons for deer and bear on the Saturday closest to Oct. 1. That Saturday falls on Sept. 29 this year.

That's a far cry from half a decade ago, when only the early season for resident Canada geese and the season for mourning doves began in September. Johansen said wildlife officials considered shifting the closing dates of some of the big-game hunting seasons into January, but decided that might create conflicts with grouse and waterfowl hunters.

"The sense among our staff, and among the public, was to avoid spreading big-game hunting opportunities into [a time period] that traditionally had been used only by bird hunters," he said.

The ultimate success or failure of early hunting seasons depends on the hunters. Johansen said hunters who filled out questionnaires at the DNR's annual sectional meetings generally have endorsed season shifting, primarily because the shifts create additional days of hunting.

"We have never gotten 100 percent endorsement, though," he added

"Four years ago, when the September archery and muzzleloader seasons for antlerless deer were being considered, some hunters said it would be impossible to kill a deer in 75-degree temperatures and get it out of the woods without having the meat spoil. As it turned out, many guys found a way to do just that."

DNR administrators also got some resistance when they first proposed to change the squirrel opener from early October to early September. Some critics argued that lactating female squirrels would be killed, and that their offspring would then die.

Others argued that squirrels might still be infested by botfly larvae, commonly referred to as warbles.

On the other hand, they got almost no resistance when they broached the idea of starting the deer and bear archery seasons two weeks earlier, in late September instead of mid-October. Bowhunters almost universally praised the move.

Wildlife officials hope hunters will have similar fondness for a brand-new season implemented this year. Part of the so-called "traditional" firearm season for antlerless deer has been shifted forward from its usual spot, from early December to late October.

There was no hue and cry for the change, but DNR biologists asked for it because they believed it would help them stabilize whitetail populations in overpopulated areas.

"We wanted to start the antlerless season earlier so females would be taken out of the population before the rut," Johansen explained. "With fewer females available for bucks to mate with, the rut will become more compressed. Does will drop their fawns in a more compressed time window, which in turn will reduce the amount of predation on newborn fawns."

Johansen believes hunters ultimately will come to view all the early seasons as additional opportunities to pursue their favorite pastime.

"For the most part, we've seen pretty broad support for providing extra days of hunting," he said.

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or  johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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