CHARLESTON - West Virginia's state parks have hosted deer hunts before, but not like the ones they're planning to host this fall.
Twenty-one three-day managed hunts will take place in 10 parks - a sharp break from recent years, when single-day hunts were held in only one or two parks. Sam England, chief of the state's Parks Section, said the main goal of conducting so many hunts is to protect the parks from the deer.
"All of these parks have an overabundance of deer," he explained. "That causes environmental problems. Deer browse or graze on native plant species and leave non-native species alone. The non-native species then proliferate, and the native species never get a chance to come back."
England said he observed that personally when he was the superintendent at Stonewall Jackson State Park.
"After three years of managed hunts at Stonewall, we finally reduced the deer population to a point where we started seeing grapevine sprouts, tree sproutsand flowers such as trilliums and pepperwort coming up again," he added.
This fall's hunts will take place at Beech Fork, Cacapon, Canaan Valley, Chief Logan, Lost River, North Bend, Pipestem, Stonewall, Twin Falls and Watoga state parks. Each park will host at least a pair of three-day hunts. North Bend, which has a higher deer density than the other parks, will host three.
All of the hunts will take place between Oct. 29 and Nov. 17, during the peak of the whitetail mating season. England said holding the hunts during that time period, when deer are on the move and less wary than usual, should give hunters plenty of incentive to participate.
"We want to increase the efficiency of these hunts," he said. "So we're trying to hold them at time when hunters will be most interested in participating. The other thing we're planning to do is to charge nominal application fees for the permits so hunters will be more committed to the hunts."
These hunts and the idea of there being an overpopulation of deer, however, has caused concern among citizens in Logan County. They say there is not a deer population large enough in Chief Logan State Park to sustain a hunt, and that the deer are one of the biggest attractions for families visiting the park.
Dr. Scott Siegel, a veterinarian at Logan Animal Hospital and a wildlife consultant at the park for nearly 30 years, said the deer population is actually "dramatically down" in Chief Logan, as much as 70 percent to 80 percent in the past 10 years.
"That's not something that only I have noticed," Siegel said. "But in the last couple of years when I go there, the staff of the park would always ask me what's happening with all the deer."
Siegel said he presented a petition with more than 1,600 signatures against introducing hunting in Chief Logan to West Virginia's Department of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel during a meeting Saturday.
"It's crazy to say there is an overpopulation," Siegel said. "So with that in mind, we launched an online petition on the Logan Animal Hospital Facebook page that would go to the governor and Senate and things like that. There were over 1,600 signatures from hunters and non-hunters alike, all saying the same thing: They didn't want a hunt, there's no need for a hunt and there's no overpopulation. It's wrong to do it. They don't hardly see the deer anymore, and the ones we do see are tame. People from all over the state and country who have been here are saying the same thing."
Siegel said he approached McDaniel with these statements as well as reports from two local biologists who said the plant life had not been adversely affected by the deer in the park. Siegel said he and others feel this is more of a financial decision rather than doing what's right for the park.
Parks officials previously didn't charge application fees. Permits were free; hunters who applied had their names drawn in a lottery to see which of them would get to participate. According to England, that system had a serious drawback.
"It wasn't unusual to have only one-half to two-thirds of the hunters show up," he said. "When that happened, we only got one-half to two-thirds as many deer killed as there would have been with a full complement of hunters. When you look at the effort and labor it took to put on those hunts, the low participation rate made them pretty inefficient."
England believes the application fees will make sure hunters have some skin in the game.
"We believe the application fees will help people who want to try these hunts to be more committed to them," he said.
Parks officials haven't yet established what the fees will be, but England said hunters "should find them really reasonable."
At most parks, the first hunt held will be archery/crossbow-only. The second will be a muzzleloader season held the following weekend.
"We wanted to create something that would be popular with muzzleloader hunters," England said. "Being able to hunt during the rut is something muzzleloader hunters have wanted for a long time."
Three parks will not follow the archery-muzzleoader formula. At North Bend, the first two weekends will be archery/crossbow-only and the third will be for muzzleloaders. Chief Logan and Twin Falls are located in counties where firearm hunting for deer is illegal, so each of those parks will host two separate archery hunts open to longbows, recurve bows and compound bows. Only hunters with Class Y handicap permits will be allowed to use crossbows at Chief Logan and Twin Falls.
Siegel said he received word Wednesday that McDaniel was looking at a 30-day window to reconsider the decision about Chief Logan. He said he's not sure whether this is for true reconsideration or simply to try to tamp down the public outcry against the decision.
"We're still here," Siegel said. "Just because things are going to go quiet on his end for a little, we're not going to forget. We're going to be here, and 30 days from now we're going to be recharged and unified."
Siegel said there are plans to launch a full-scale protest of visits to the park and the Chief Logan Lodge and Conference Center if the decision to allow hunting in the area is not rolled back.
Siegel said they were willing to compromise with a cooling off period during which more research into the deer population at Logan could be done before a decision was made, but the vote was passed by the DNR anyway.
Most of the hunting at all of the parks will be for antlerless deer, but England said some hunters will get opportunities to take bucks.
"There will be two types of harvest," he continued. "In parks with two-deer limits, it will be 'one-and-one' - kill a doe and earn a chance to harvest a buck. In parks with one-deer limits, we'll do lottery draws in the morning for opportunities at bucks."
All of the hunts will be held on parks that have lodges or cabins. England hopes hunters choose to take advantage of the facilities and decide to stay there.