COLUMN: Some positives for West Virginia hunters and anglers in the age of COVID-19

Hindsight is 20/20 – quite literally.

As I write this piece on March 23, it was about a year ago I sat in my old apartment’s home office trying to fathom what was happening. 

A week and a half before that on March 12, I sat on my balcony on the phone with UHS coaches Joe Schmidle and David Price. Our conversation was a mix of sadness, disappointment and confusion. That day we didn’t know if winter sports would return. I wrote and filed that story, not knowing how things would shape up. 

On March 21, 2020, I filed a column titled “Nature is our final safe haven.” My girlfriend, dog and I had just taken a trip to Dolly Sods for a day hike. There, in the wilderness, I was able to find some solace in what was going on. Still, we had no idea what was going on, and that day in my old home office I had to figure out what being a writer and journalist during a pandemic looked like to me. 

Now, as I reflect on the last year, much as our other outdoor columnist Dave Samuel has, I’d like to point out the good things that happened this past year. It’s hard to link them to the pandemic, but I like to think these examples are, in fact, due to more people taking up hunting and fishing. 

First, I’d like to highlight West Virginia bear hunters set a new state harvest record at 3,541. While I’m not a bear hunter, this is great news in the face of news reports of states like California and New Jersey trying to stymie bear hunting. Though old news, the most recent California bill (SB 252) that would have outlawed bear hunting, was withdrawn after major pushback online by sportsmen and women. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order that will end the annual hunt starting in 2021. There is still pushback to this, and I hope it’s overturned as bears in heavily populated states like Jersey with no management through hunting will be detrimental in so many different ways. 

You may laugh at them and politicize it further, saying, “Well, those are just blue states!” But if we hunters only laugh it off, more conservative states like ours could face a situation in the future just like it. All it will take is a flip in state government, and someone who doesn’t understand or listen to the science behind management could do the same because “New Jersey did it in 2020.” 

But I said I was going to focus on the good. Sorry. 

With turkey season right around the corner, I want to look at license sale increases. People – despite the reason – had more time on their hands in 2020, which meant license sales across the country saw upticks. Some states saw more growth than others. According to TMZ, by April 18, Michigan reported a 17.1% increase in turkey license sales (97,305 compared to 83,072 in 2019) and New York saw a 30% increase in total sales and a 60% surge in turkey permits sold. And, on the low end, Virginia saw a 10% boost to overall sales. 

What about us? According to data from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, we saw a drop in nonresident turkey permits sold, but not a big one, from 4,330 in 2019 to 3,822 in 2020. Further, our total license sales decreased, too, though slightly from 824,830 to 809,510. This does not include lifetime licenses, according to DNR Director Stephen McDaniel.

Much of that loss comes from the decline of fishing licenses, albeit for a good reason with Gov. Jim Justice’s 60-day free fishing initiative. Hunting was relatively stable. 

So what’s the good news about losing anglers? On the surface, nothing, but with a little foresight and hope, one can come to a reasonable conclusion that once the economy begins to stabilize those who took advantage of the free 60 fishing days will buy a license. 

As for the decline in nonresident turkey permits, now that travel is returning to normal we should see more people return to our public lands to chase gobblers. 

As for non-hunting and fishing activities, 2020 was a year when I was reactivated as a backpacker. It wasn’t great for my wallet, but it was great for my soul (and my health). I foresee that picking up more popularity this year, too. 

So while we’re still trying to kick COVID-19 as a nation, we can’t just look at the doom and gloom. I hope I was able to share some good news with you. It was certainly refreshing for me. 

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