West Virginia Study Shows Population Changes

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The Wildlife Resources Section of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources conducted annual spotlight-distance surveys during the month of September in several eastern panhandle counties to estimate deer population levels. The surveys this year were expanded to include Hampshire, Berkeley and Pendleton counties. By doing so, wildlife biologists are able to compare results among three different regions of the panhandle. The results show high populations in some areas, and low populations in others.

"These spotlight-distance surveys are conducted to determine relative abundance of deer in these counties," noted District Wildlife Biologist Rich Rogers. "This information, when added to other data sources collected throughout the year, helps to better manage county deer herds."

This year's surveys showed deer densities of 50 deer per square mile in Berkeley County, 80 deer per square mile in eastern Pendleton County, 30 deer per square mile in the Slanesville area of Hampshire County, and 22 deer per square mile between Augusta and Kirby in Hampshire County.

It appears that reduced antlerless deer harvests in both Berkeley and Pendleton counties have resulted in higher deer densities over the past couple of years. By contrast, increased antlerless deer harvests in Hampshire County have kept densities lower. Rich Rogers said he found it interesting that deer densities actually seem to be higher in the Slanesville area of Hampshire County, where DNR has been intensively collecting deer in the spring for chronic wasting disease (CWD) monitoring. He also said that the deer herd displays a younger age structure and is producing more fawns.

"This is good news and is the first evidence that our Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan is, at least in part, achieving its goal of maintaining a younger deer population in the area where the disease is found in Hampshire County," noted Rogers. It is thought that younger deer are less prone to spreading the disease, since it takes over a year for most deer to begin shedding infectious material.

Deer densities in surveyed sections of both Berkeley and Pendleton counties are much higher than desired and above their management objectives. It is hoped that with increased antlerless deer harvests, these deer densities will decrease to more appropriate levels, herds will remain healthy, and crop damage will decrease.

Wildlife managers and biologists distributed flyers describing the survey along the routes and talked to as many landowners as possible in the week prior to conducting the survey."We really don't want to disturb people while conducting the surveys, and if people ask us to leave, we do," said Rogers. He also noted that it was important for people to realize they were only looking and not shooting any deer for survey collections.

The survey involves driving along predetermined routes and spotlighting deer to count by age and sex when possible. Distances to the deer, as well as compass angle, and distance traveled, are noted and submitted for statistical analysis. A computer program then calculates the total area surveyed and the number of deer per square mile that were present. Al Niederberger, Assistant District Wildlife Biologist, noted that the survey provides a conservative estimate of deer abundance. Wildlife biologists also take into account food availability, time of year, and other factors that may affect their interpretation of the results obtained.