Consider Passing the Small Buck

A whitetail buck feeds in a field.

Better buck management in West Virginia starts with the hunters

Some of my newer readers may consider themselves blessed not to have heard me yell from the soapbox I’m about to display in this column but consider this an acclimation to something I deeply care about: better buck management.

More specifically, better management in my home state of West Virginia.

But before I jump atop said soapbox, I’d like to highlight something I recently found amusing. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Steve Rinella’s brand MeatEater, I recommend giving them a look. One of their brands is Wired to Hunt, the brainchild of well-known midwestern whitetail hunter Mark Kenyon. Of all the MeatEater brands, I’ve never found a criticism of content coming from WTH – and this isn’t my first critique. I found a recent article humorous, though, as West Virginia was named one of the three most underrated states for public land whitetail hunting. 

The funny part? The author, Tony Hansen, spoke only about the lower four archery-only counties. 

Still, Hansen isn’t wrong – we’re constantly seeing big bucks come out of Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming, and that is an underrated place to hunt. Why? Because they have a lower buck limit than the rest of the state.

So what are the stats that drive my desire for a lower buck limit? This past season, in total, West Virginia hunters harvested 106,861 whitetails, a 7.5% rise from 2019’s numbers (99,437) and 6% below the five-year average (113,444). For what it’s worth, that’s pretty good since hunter numbers have significantly declined in the last few decades. Some believe the COVID-19 pandemic is a factor in increased harvests around the country, which would pan out as sales of outdoor equipment increased last year. It would be great to see harvest numbers continue to increase, but that’s beside the point. 

When looking at the breakdowns, 38,785 bucks and 31,255 does were killed in the respective firearms seasons. Forgoing archery and muzzleloader seasons, the imbalance of kills is displayed here. 

The 2020 antlerless kills were up 10% from 2019 (28,336), but still 8% below the five-year average (33,863). To compare, in 2019, 36,472 bucks were killed during the firearms season. That year was poor in general for the doe harvest (13% lower than 2018 and 21% below the five-year average). And if you need any more evidence of the recent disparities, in 2017 hunters killed 44,127 bucks and 33,584 antlerless deer in their specific gun seasons. Once again, this was wildly below the five-year average. 

Yes, we saw more does go in our freezers this past season and the harvest difference shrunk, but it’s still not enough. One-year changes are not indicative of substantial change.

So, for long-term benefits, what should we do? Statewide, we need to see more of a push to kill fewer bucks – specifically 1 1/2-year-olds – and replace that deer with a doe. I want to make it clear, though, that I’m not saying because of a lower doe kill that the sex ratio is wildly imbalanced. Natural death, vehicle collisions, etc., as well as fawn recruitment, will even out a female-heavy doe-to-buck ratio. But to sustain a healthy herd with ample opportunity for all hunters, there must be an effort to harvest more does than bucks in a given season. 

The truth is, in a general range it’s nearly impossible to hit and maintain a 1:1 doe-to-buck ratio. Kip Adams, formerly the conservation director of the Quality Deer Management Association, suggests private land managers aim for a 2:1 ratio to sustain a healthy herd. Still, that’s for a private land manager and not a statewide plan. Further, a good ratio isn’t always indicative of a well-managed herd, something Adams covered in a previous article for then-QDMA. 

“Prior to antler restrictions and liberalized doe harvests, Pennsylvania was considered to be among the poorest managed states in the country,” he wrote. “Even then, Pennsylvania’s statewide pre-hunt adult sex ratio was less than 3 adult does per adult buck. The deer population was skewed toward females, but the bigger problem was nearly all of the bucks were yearlings.”

A big piece of information, too, is that a lowered buck limit will not decrease the number of deer a West Virginian can kill. Right now, with all the different special seasons and regulations, 11 total deer can be killed. 

Given everything I’ve laid out, I believe there are many steps the upcoming new Natural Resources Commission can do to improve deer hunting and the state herd in West Virginia. But the first thing is to lower the buck limit from three to two. This has been something a majority of deer hunters have called for – at least those participating in surveys and communications with the DNR – and have been denied under the previous NRC. It’s also a practice that’s based on sound science. With already liberal doe regulations in place in certain counties around the state, we could potentially see the kills begin to level out after a few years or, maybe further down the road, the doe kills surpass the buck kills. 

This is a very nuanced topic, and in the end there are no easy resolutions. There will be consequences to some degree depending on what our leaders choose to do. I just hope the future decisions will be based on proven science and data.