Longer seasons likely to increase hunting pressure

Charleston, W.Va. (AP) – Like a
growing number of states, West Virginia was aiming to make a dent
in its fast-growing deer population when it created its first-ever
September hunting season this year.

But the upshot of such changes across the country often is more
hunters spending more time – and money – pursuing deer. Federal
government figures show more than 10 million big game hunters spent
approximately $11.8 billion annually, a number that has increased
despite waning participation in the sport.

As the number of hunters has dropped, the population of
whitetail deer – by far the most common big game animal – has
climbed across much of the United States.

Wildlife biologists have responded by increasing opportunities
to kill whitetails, particularly in warmer-weather states where
extreme winter cold doesn’t help check deer numbers. Some states
have lengthened hunting seasons, others have increased bag limits.
Some have tried to increase access to private land.

“Certainly there’s an interest in creating more opportunities,”
said Matt Hogan, executive director of the

Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“State agencies are very supportive of keeping the traditions of
hunting alive and one of the ways you do that is providing more
opportunities for folks to get out there.”

West Virginia opened its first-ever September archery season in
the middle of the month, allowing bowhunters to pursue deer in 36
counties. The following week, the state opened a muzzleloader
season. The changes are aimed at reducing the state’s deer
population, which is estimated at 1 million. Last year, West
Virginia hunters killed 162,371 deer, up from 145,937 in 2007.

Other states have tried different approaches.

Kansas has established a zone around Kansas City where the aim
is to essentially eliminate the deer population, said Steve
Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, a
98-year-old conservation group.

Pennsylvania has established similar rings around Philadelphia
and Pittsburgh.

Some states have made it easier to shoot does – populations drop
more quickly if the breeding females are eliminated – while others
have increased seasons. Some require hunters to kill a doe before
shooting a buck.

“You look at deer kill statistics and, for the most part, those
numbers continue to climb,” Williams said. “Certainly, in general
way, they’ve been successful.”

Just how many of West Virginia’s estimated 300,000 deer hunters
take the hint and get out earlier than usual – or even buy an extra
doe tag or two – is a tough call given the response to past efforts
to expand hunting.

When West Virginia decided to overlap firearms seasons for bucks
and does, the aim was to reduce the burgeoning deer population.
That worked, but it’s less clear whether the change sent more
hunters to the field or increased permit purchases.

“It took advantage of the fact that the vast majority of our
hunters are afield the first two or three days of the buck season,”
said West Virginia Division of Natural Resources official Paul
Johansen. “It probably had a positive effect. It certainly didn’t
have a negative effect on license sales.”

The most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and
Wildlife-Associated Recreation shows spending by big game hunters
increased from 2001 to 2005 to $11.8 billion, from $10.1 billion.
Overall, spending on hunting declined to $22.9 billion, from $23.5
billion in the same period. People who kept hunting, though,
continued to spend an average of 17.5 days per year in the
field.

Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources has taken a new approach
to combating the state’s swollen deer population this fall by
trying to hook up hunters with farmers in a state where 95 percent
of land is in private hands. People looking for a place to hunt can
sign up on huntohiofarms.com, as can farmers
seeking hunters.

If a two-year test in four northeastern counties works, Ohio
hopes to expand the program statewide, Ohio DNR spokesman Luke
Miller said. So far, about 3,800 hunters, but a relatively scant 40
farms, have signed up.

While Miller says the goal is increased pressure on Ohio’s
antlerless deer population, the agency is also aiming to get more
hunters out more often.

States such as Kansas and Montana already have programs that pay
landowners to allow hunting parties.

“There’s more of those programs out there and they’re increasing
all the time,” said Hogan, with the Association of Fish and
Wildlife Agencies.

Increasing programs to provide access is part of what agencies
are supposed to do.

“That’s part of our business to try to provide recreation to our
citizens,” West Virginia’s Johansen said. “Generally speaking, when
you create a new season it generates interest in our hunters and it
gets them excited and they go out and hunt.”

In Pennsylvania, giving hunters more opportunities to shoot does
by overlapping the season for antlered and antlerless deer a number
of years ago generated greater interest, said Williams, who lives
in the Keystone state.

“Our doe tag license sales did increase,” he said.

The change also gave hunters the opportunity to keep going after
they took the first deer of the year, without waiting several weeks
for a brief doe season.

“For me, personally, it changed from a one-day season to a
two-week season,” Williams said.

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