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Severe winter could take drastic toll on white-tailed deer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia wildlife officials say severe winter weather could kill off thousands of hungry white-tailed deer.

"It will all depend on how severe the winter is," said Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. "If the winter is normal to mild, mortality should be minimal. If we get severe weather, mortality could be significant."

Biologists don't often worry about winter mortality, but a recent chain of events has them thinking about it.

Food for deer has been scarce for two years in a row. Acorns, a whitetail staple, were scarce during the fall of 2012 and are almost nonexistent this year. The lack of acorns will probably send hundreds of thousands of whitetails into the winter months in poorer-than-usual nutritional condition.

To make matters worse, there will be tens of thousands more hungry mouths to feed.

Inclement weather during two of the first three days of the state's firearm buck season will almost certainly keep hunters from killing as many deer as DNR officials had anticipated.

Most of the annual harvest occurs during the first season's first three days. Weather was ideal on opening day, but early reports from game-checking stations indicated a relatively light kill. Rain on the season's second day and snow on its third held the kill far below expectations.

Johansen said thousands of deer that should have been killed by now are still out roaming the woods.

"Those deer will be competing with the rest for what little food is available," he added. "The worst-case scenario would be for us to have a really bad winter with several heavy snowstorms. If that happens, some deer will starve."

There could be other effects as well.

"When deer go into the winter in less-than-optimum condition, the effects could show up next spring with does having fewer fawns, and next fall with bucks having smaller antlers," Johansen explained.

"Mature does usually have twin fawns. But if those does are in poor shape, we may see more of them having single fawns, or not producing fawns at all."

Hunters are already seeing poor nutrition's effect on antler size. By all accounts, bucks checked-in during this season's first week had smaller racks, on average, than did bucks in 2012.

Johansen attributed the decline to last fall's spotty acorn crop, and he said this fall's especially poor crop could retard next year's antler growth as much if not more.

Widespread starvation is highly unlikely to happen. Usually "winterkill" occurs in pockets, and mostly then in the state's high mountains. Johansen said the deer he examined this year at a Raleigh County game-checking station "appeared to be in good health" - not fat, but not skinny either.

The most likely effects will appear during the fawning season, when fewer young deer are born; and next fall, when bucks sports smaller antlers than they otherwise might have.

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


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