Reasons For The
By Steve Wilson
Have you ever wondered why a certain hunting season opens on a specific
date or how season lengths or bag limits are set? Do you have an idea
for a change in season dates or bag limits that you would like to suggest
but don’t know the process? This article will explain the process
for setting season dates and bag limits, tell you who actually makes
these decisions, and discuss some of the factors that influence those
Many people incorrectly believe that the Division of Natural Resources
determines all hunting regulations. Season dates and bag limits are
actually set by the Natural Resources Commission. The seven members
of the Commission are appointed by the governor and serve staggered
seven-year terms. The Commission is a key link in the regulations process,
providing a balance between the biological needs of the resources and
the desires of the public.
Changes in season dates and/or bag limits recommended by the DNR
are presented to the Commission in January each year. The proposals
are also presented to the public through questionnaires and a series
of public meetings in March. The Commission reviews the proposed changes
and the public comments, and in late April or early May vote on the
changes proposed for the current year. These changes, usually antlerless
deer and bear seasons, must be made in time to print new hunting regulations
brochures by July. Proposals scheduled to take effect the following
year, are taken up at the July Commission meeting.
All Commission meetings are open to the public and public comments
are accepted at each meeting. The Commission may request the Wildlife
Resources Section to evaluate proposals received from the public. Hunters,
therefore, have significant opportunities to participate in the decision-making
Regulations other than season dates and bag limits, such as hunting
methods, and tagging and reporting requirements, go through a similar
process. These types of regulations, however, must then go through
the legislative rule making process and be approved by the state legislature.
Regulation changes proposed by the DNR have been extensively reviewed
before they are presented to the Commission and the public. Proposed
changes may originate from recommendations by species or district biologists,
wildlife managers, or hunters. Proposed changes are submitted in writing
and include the proposed change, the expected impact on the resource,
expected sociological and financial impacts, and the possible positive
and negative effects on hunters. The proposals are distributed to game
management biologists and then discussed at a meeting in January when
harvest data for the previous year is available. A proposal may be
rejected, approved or held for further study at this point. Approved
proposals are forwarded to the Wildlife Resources Section Chief and
then to the DNR Director for their approval before they are submitted
to the Commission and the public.
Regulation changes proposed by the DNR are primarily based on biological
considerations. Clearly the first concern must be to maintain healthy,
viable wildlife populations in balance with their habitat. Providing
ample opportunity for public use of these resources, including hunting,
is also a primary concern. Season dates and bag limits are used to
regulate harvests so that game population levels may be increased,
decreased or maintained at current levels. Sociological considerations
such as hunter safety, the desires of hunters and even tradition also
play a significant role in setting hunting regulations.
Firearms deer seasons are a good example of a combination of biological
and sociological factors. When deer numbers are low and the objective
is to increase their numbers, biology dictates a season for bucks only
after the breeding season. Because the Thanksgiving holiday would allow
more people the opportunity to hunt and it is after the peak of breeding
season, that week was chosen to open firearms deer hunting. As deer
populations increased, biological considerations led to allowing limited
antlerless deer hunting. Sociological considerations dictated a random
drawing permit system to fairly allocate the limited opportunity. Deer
populations are now above management plan goals in much of the state
and both the season length and bag limits have increased. The tradition
of not hunting antlerless deer prior to the buck season has been maintained.
Bear seasons illustrate the dynamic nature of hunter preferences
and tradition, as well as, their interaction with sound biological
management. When bears were designated as game animals instead of varmints
in 1969, the initial seasons were a week in early November and two
weeks in December. This structure was based primarily on the desires
of bear hunters to have both early and late hunting that did not directly
conflict with other hunting seasons. Unfortunately, the bear population
did not prosper under this season structure. The traditional approach
to correcting this situation would have been to reduce or eliminate
bear hunting, an option that many people favored. Fortunately, sound
biology based on harvest data and radio telemetry studies provided
a better solution.
Sow bears, especially pregnant ones, nearly always enter their winter
dens by late November. Instead of reducing the total season length,
the days in November were shifted to December which provided protection
for the female segment of the population without reducing hunting opportunity.
The change was successful and bear numbers have increased significantly.
In fact, bear numbers now exceed the sociological carrying capacity
in some areas. Using the same biological information in 2002, the WRS
recommended, and the Commission approved, adding hunting days in November
in certain counties. The November season should result in an increased
harvest of sow bears and a reduced population. The bear population
is being closely monitored. After only two years, the bear population
in one of the five counties in which a November season was added has
decreased enough to close the season.
The current fall turkey season is an example of compromise between
biology and tradition. Fall turkey and squirrel seasons traditionally
opened together in mid-October. Under that structure, the turkey population
in counties with a fall season was growing at a much slower rate than
counties without a fall season. Because the fall harvest is mainly
hens and young birds, biologists believed a small reduction in the
fall harvest would stimulate population growth.
WRS biologists proposed a later opening date for fall turkey season
to reduce the harvest. Hunters opposed the change and the Commission
did not approve it. Biologists then recommended a compromise of moving
squirrel season a week earlier but not changing the turkey season.
This proposal had greater public support and was approved by the Commission.
The change was successful in increasing the turkey population growth
rate. With biological evidence in hand and increased public support
the DNR then recommended, and the Commission approved, delaying the
opening of turkey season by one week in 1995.
The tradition of a split fall turkey season with one week in late
December has fallen victim to expanding deer seasons. There are many
more deer hunters than turkey hunters and having turkey and deer hunting
seasons open concurrently could be detrimental to turkey populations.
The need to increase antlerless deer hunting opportunity and the limited
dates available resulted in the current four consecutive weeks of fall
Spring gobbler season is based entirely on biological consideration.
Spring hunting went against tradition and the season was controversial
when first initiated. But biologically it is the safest and most efficient
season to harvest surplus male turkeys. The only function of the gobbler
is to fertilize eggs and a single mating is all that is necessary,
even if a hen must re-nest.
The season opening date is based on the peak of the onset of incubation.
This information was initially obtained by collecting the wingtips
of young birds harvested in the fall season and determining hatch date
by feather measurements. Telemetry studies of nesting hen turkeys confirmed
that this date was accurate and applied throughout the state. Legal
hunting hours end at 1 p.m. because incubating hens frequently leave
their nest in the afternoon for food and water. The season takes advantage
of reproductive behavior to make surplus gobblers easier to harvest.
The date and hunting hours are set to provide the greatest possible
protection for nesting hens. Advocates of an earlier opening date and/or
all day hunting are often unaware of these important biological considerations.
Bag limits are used both to regulate harvest and to help distribute
the harvest among more hunters. Hunting has little impact on most small
game populations such as squirrels or rabbits. Small game species typically
have higher reproductive rates and their populations go up or down
depending on habitat, food and weather conditions. Bag limits for these
species allow more hunters to share in the harvest and discourage waste.
Bag limits for big game species on the other hand are primarily designed
to help regulate harvests.
Deer bag limits vary considerably based on deer population levels
and management objectives. Four southern counties have a maximum annual
bag limit of only two deer per hunter, while other counties with high
deer numbers have a maximum annual limit of nine. A hunter would have
to purchase all the available licenses and hunt the archery, bucks
only, antlerless and muzzleloader seasons to fill a nine- deer limit.
Only one of the nine would have to be an antlered buck but up to five
could be bucks. At least four must be antlerless deer and eight of
the nine could be antlerless. A purely biological approach would suggest
reducing the number of bucks allowed and requiring more antlerless
deer to be taken.
You now know who sets season dates and bag limits. I hope you have
a better appreciation for all the biological and sociological factors
that must be considered when establishing these rules. You can see
from these examples that hunters, the DNR and the Commission all play
important roles in setting season dates and bag limits that are biologically
sound as well as acceptable to hunters.
Steve Wilson is a wildlife biologist stationed in Elkins.