First of its kind
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory sprawls across nearly 2,700 acres in Pocahontas County. Mike Holstine, business manager and hunt coordinator at the NRAO, said when he first started working there in 1992, the facility hadn't been hunted in more than 30 years and the deer population was out-of-control. Holstine contacted the Division of Natural Resources, and with their help, started the first private sector, pre-season, lottery hunt in the state.
“It's a basic land-management practice,” explained Holstine. “We did counts prior to the first hunt — and we've done counts subsequently — we were running somewhere over sixty deer per square mile. The land itself can't handle more than about twenty deer per square mile as a general rule.”
Holstine said when the deer population grows beyond an area's capacity, deer out-eat other species, and affect the overall, natural balance of wildlife.
“You lose out on the turkey population or the grouse population — even butterflies,” said Holstine. “To bring everything back into balance, you need to have population control. The easiest and most effective way to do that is opening it up to the public, letting the hunters do what they do best.”
Holstine said this is the 20th anniversary of the NRAO lottery hunt, but they've skipped a couple years here and there when the deer population was within a healthy range.
Holstine said people drive as far as four or five hours for the free hunt. Eighty-seven permits were issued both days of the two-day hunt, and a separate drawing was held both days to award five lucky winners the option to take either a buck or a doe. The rest of the entrants were limited to antlerless deer, though Holstine said a couple of button-bucks were harvested because they're still categorized as antlerless.
Hunters were allowed to hunt in four different areas that covered nearly 1,600 acres. Each section was separated by weapon category — bow, muzzleloader, and shotgun. A rifle category has always been excluded because of the sensitive — and expensive— equipment located around the facility.
Holstine said the lottery hunt at the NRAO is significant for a few reasons.
“This was the first private-sector hunt held in the state of West Virginia. We were also the first early firearms hunt in West Virginia. We do all this in cooperation with DNR,” he said.
Only West Virginia residents can apply and Holstine said they wrote a computer program at the NRAO that goes through the entries and pulls a certain number of the applications. Holstine said this year was actually one of the lowest number of entries they've had — just under 600. He said in the past they've had as many as 1,700.
NRAO employees were on scene to help out hunters. Drivers shuttled hunters back-and-forth from sites in their specifically-diesel work trucks. Holstine said gas-powered engines affect the equipment, and the employees were more than happy to drop folks off anywhere they'd like. Designated lay-down areas were also established so hunters that bagged a deer could be picked up. Holstine said at the NRAO, they're also a registered game-checking station.
“If people get a deer, we weigh 'em, measure chest girth, we fill out these check sheets and check 'em for ectoparasites, hoof lesions, tail fat — basically a herd health check. We also age the deer here — the way the teeth come in gives you an indication of the age,” he said.
Hunters were also allowed to target any of the wild hogs or coyotes that were sighted throughout the two-day event.
“We let 'em take the hogs and the coyotes because there's no season for them — they're not considered a game animal,” explained Jim Crum, DNR wildlife biologist and state deer project leader.
Crum said the NRAO hunt was used as a model to demonstrate private sector hunts could be done safely elsewhere in the state.
“We used it as an example of a controlled deer hunt where there's conflicting uses,” said Crum. “This place has everything from tours, to workers on site, to expensive equipment. When we were able to demonstrate that you're able to hunt here without any problems — we used it as an example to get other people to have hunts. Other federal facilities, state parks, homeowners associations, cities — all that took place after we started this.”
Holstine said there were six areas designated for handicapped hunting. He recalled one year when a group of buddies brought their paraplegic friend in a modified van to hunt from the road. When the handicapped hunter lined up his shot using his tongue, and fired the weapon by blowing in a tube — he'd missed his shot.
“His friends were messin' with him just like any other group of buddies,” recalled Holstine. “You know, 'I can't believe you missed that!' and jokin' with him.”
Holstine said they had a few females hunters and a few youth registrants, too.
“This is a great place for a youth hunt. Yesterday we had several kids under 10-years-old,” he said.
According to Holstine, there's no official contest set up, just bragging rights among the participants. He said he gets good feedback from hunters every year.
“The hunters, by a huge majority, love this hunt,” said Holstine. “They like these woods, they're very mature hardwoods here. And it's a relatively flat area, too, so youth hunters and older hunters can get around easier. Then there's also some mountainous terrain for the hunters that like that.”
Holstine said 16 deer were harvested on Friday and 10 deer on Saturday.
“I have a lot of praise for the hunters that we get here,” Holstine said. “They behave very, very well. We've never had any kind of incident or had anyone hurt in twenty years.”