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Photo: Deer hunting is a time-honored ritual in West Virginia

Deer hunting is a time-honored ritual in West Virginia.

CHARLESTON — Thousands of hunters poured into West Virginia forests Monday to launch the annual two-week, firearms-only season for bucks.

The annual hunt, traditionally set around the Thanksgiving holiday and running through Sunday, Dec. 5, is a big deal for both hunters and the state’s economy.

“Based on 2020 data, hunting generates $456 million annually in retail sales in West Virginia,” said Paul Johansen, chief of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Section. “When you add the multiplier effect from the economic activity, the total economic impact is $549 million.

“Hunting in West Virginia is a pretty big deal, especially deer season,” Johansen said. “We know it’s also a big deal for those mom-and-pop stores in many of the remote areas where hunters are attracted.”

It’s estimated that close to $300 million is generated within the two-week window of the buck season, and for the small shops in out-of-the-way locations, deer season is the critical difference between a downturn in profits and a healthy one, according to the economic impact data.

“People don’t realize what a huge economic impact that has on the state,” Johansen said. “Wildlife in general is a billion-dollar industry in this state.”

Johansen says white-tailed deer are the most sought-after, big-game species in the state. Every year, more than 200,000 resident and non-resident hunters take to the woods to hunt white-tails. White-tailed deer are found in every county and in every habitat in the Mountain State, he said.

Johansen said 38,785 bucks were harvested during last year’s two-week firearm buck-only season.

“We are predicting very similar numbers this year, around 35,000 to 40,000,” he said. “However, the weather conditions can have an impact, especially in the first few days of the season.”

Weather is always an unpredictable factor. Johansen says the weather doesn’t have as much effect on deer behavior as it does on hunter behavior.

“The bulk of the buck harvest happens in those first few days, so if we have miserable weather conditions, it will have a direct effect on the overall numbers because lots of people don’t like to hunt in nasty weather conditions,” he said.

Firearm accidents have declined in recent years, and for the most part, the incidents have been limited to heart seizures and the carelessness in tumbling from a tree stand.

“I remind hunters to be safe, wear your blaze orange, which is required, wear a safety harness if you are in a tree stand and make sure you identify your target before you shoot,” Johansen said.

Johansen says the state hunter education programs have also helped to keep accidents and incidents down.

“Hunting in West Virginia is incredibly safe,” he said.

Johansen said it is also the 30th anniversary of the Hunters Helping the Hungry Program, which provides thousands of pounds of venison to needy families across the state.

“Since the inception of the program, hunters, financial contributors and participating processors have enabled the processing of 27,566 deer,” Johansen said. “With their generosity and the assistance of two area food banks, 1,046,697 pounds of highly nutritious meat has been provided to needy families and individuals throughout West Virginia.”

Hunters who decide to participate in the program take their deer to a participating meat processor, where the processor grinds, packages and freezes the venison. The Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway and Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington, both members of Feeding America, pick up the venison and distribute it to those in need through their statewide network of 600 charitable food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, shelters, community centers, orphanages, missions and churches.

“West Virginia is fortunate to have the generous support of its hunting community,” Johansen said.

Johansen says the state has a healthy deer population, although the state is facing some reports of chronic wasting disease in some deer in the Eastern Panhandle.

“I tell hunters that if you kill a deer and it appears to be sick, then don’t eat it,” he said. “With that being said, our deer population overall is very healthy.”

The last thing Johansen says he tells hunters is to have fun.

“This two-week season has such a strong tradition in our state, so I am hopeful everyone will enjoy themselves and have the best experience ever,” he said. “Hunters should enjoy a great 2021 buck season this year.”

For more information, rules and regulations, visit wvdnr.gov.

Fred Pace is the business reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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