COLUMN: Stephen McDaniel’s idea to rework the Natural Resources Commission is a great plan

A few days ago, news broke in the West Virginia outdoor media realm that Division of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel wanted to “overhaul” the Natural Resources Commission. While “overhaul” might be a strong word to use, some of the reported plans are fantastic. 

I’ll start with the easy one: Updating the Commission to represent all six DNR districts. Obviously, this is needed, as issues vary from county to county and, especially, from district to district. According to McDaniel, Districts 3 and 6 have no representation, so issues in, literally, the entire middle chunk of our state, from Ohio to Virginia, aren’t being represented.

I know sportsmen and women in this part of our state are voicing their opinions, but from what I’ve noticed, the current commission isn’t always on the side of listening to sportsmen and women’s voices. With one representative from each of these districts, it will balance the Commission and get, at the very least, some certain issues on the table and in the agenda. 

The next change McDaniel wants, and truly the main point of this opinion piece, is setting new term limits for commissioners. Finally, something that needed to be done long ago, is now a proposal, by the guy who can get it pushed through the easiest.

Let’s be honest, the current seven-year term is too long for a commissioner. McDaniel wants to bring the limit down to four years, and allow commissioners to serve for two terms, or eight years. While two terms still could be too long for certain people, just as it is for certain governors or presidents, it’s still a good directive by McDaniel. Many issues have come and gone over time that a fresh commission could have successfully passed. I think of the grassroots push we see to lower the buck limit in the state, something that we – yes, I’m one of those who see the benefits of this – wanted the NRC to do before it could be put to legislation. Well, guess what? House Bill 2568 proposed by Delegates John Paul Hott, Ruth Rowan and Carl Martin, will do just that if passed. The current language would dictate only two antlered deer can be taken, with the second required to have three points on one side. 

While I’m not knocking these three delegates for their action – I assume their goal is to support what their constituents want – it is not the right way to go about fixing this type of problem, even if it does give a very loud majority of deer hunters what they want. Rather than letting politicians dictate our seasons or bag limits, we need to let science guide our fish and wildlife agencies and commissions to make that choice. Plus, it’s a much easier process for them to change things in the future, should it need to be done, than a legislative body.

There is a lot of evidence that backs up why West Virginia should lower its buck limit, at least for a certain amount of time, that the commissioners seemingly ignored. We, deer hunters, need to start killing more does and let bucks mature. Once again, our doe harvest was lower than our buck harvest, as hunters killed 31,255 does and 38,785 bucks. By lowering the buck limit by just one, hunters who “hunt for the meat” as many say to justify killing two or three 1 1/2-year-old bucks, will have more of an incentive to kill a doe. 

And, if there is data that shows why we should maintain our three-buck limit, I’d be happy to look at it. I have been unable to source anything that shows me that, though.

As for the science behind lowering a buck limit, in states where a one- or two-buck limit exists, the herd’s sex ratio improves and older bucks are harvested. Tennessee is a great example of that. According to a QDMA (now known as the National Deer Association) piece in 2013 by Kip Adams, it’s not always the case that a herd’s sex ratio will be less than two adult does to one adult buck, but regardless of that ratio, the age diversity of the herd is one of the most important factors. 

“Just because a herd has a ‘good’ sex ratio doesn’t mean it is properly managed,” Adams wrote. “Prior to antler restrictions and liberalized doe harvests, Pennsylvania was considered to be among the poorest managed states in the country. 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 … Of course, things are much improved in the Keystone State today.

“Two goals of QDM are to balance deer herds with the habitat and have bucks of many ages in the population. By accomplishing these goals you obtain balanced sex ratios (2:1 or better) with complete age structures for bucks and does.”

I do not know the West Virginia deer herd sex ratio, but from my preseason scouting in 2020, which is obviously not 100% indicative of the entire state, my findings showed on one property here in Monongalia County a ratio between 2:1-3:1. At the face of it, this isn’t terrible, but of the bucks I captured on trail camera (there were many) all but two were spikes. 

There is an economic incentive side to growing a more mature buck herd, too, mostly because trophy hunters will begin to spend their money here in the state rather than leaving for Ohio, Illinois or Kansas. There will still be those of us who do that, but when more pictures of big-buck kills begin to flood our social media feeds our herd looks more attractive to out-of-state hunters. It’s likely most of them will only kill one, too. According to DNR officials, we’ve seen two years of license sale growth. Why not give hunters another incentive to buy more licenses?

Should I even ask how excited we were to see the new state-record typical killed this past season? How great would it be to see more deer like that grow in this state, or even deer close to that size?

As McDaniel moves forward with this process, I wish him luck. Should it pass, will the new future commission look at upping our doe bag limits? Will they extend the antlerless gun season? Maybe they’ll set a lower buck limit. Only time will tell, but I hope the changes McDaniel is pushing for come to fruition.

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