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Archive for the ‘West Virginia’ Category

buck white antler

The second Thursday in November has just passed. In most of the country, thoughts will be about the big feast that comes exactly seven days later, but not in my part of the world.

This coming week does include American Thanksgiving. Big family meals will be held that day, and swarms of people will go charging out to shopping malls on Friday.

But in West Virginia, another holiday takes precedence: “buck gun season.”  This coming Monday, the woods be filled with more loud booms than the Fourth of July.  Organic protein and “horns” will be the prize, and a few more forest destroying cervids will be removed from the population before the coming winter turns them into twig chomping fiends.

When I was a child, all sort of people came into the rural districts, often people who had grown up in the area but had gone into the industrial parts of Ohio for work. Ohio’s deer season, “shotgun only,” came later in the year, but West Virginia’s came the week of Thanksgiving. If one wanted to visit the family for the holiday, why not come a few days early and drop a buck for the freezer?

It was such a big event that the school was out all week, not just Thursday and Friday. We received a truncated Christmas vacation, but school attendance during that week would have been terrible. So the district let us all out.

And the tradition continues. I don’t know of a single school district in West Virginia that stays open the week of Thanksgiving.

In fact, virtually every college or university in West Virginia has a week-long holiday this coming week. It is that big a deal.

And it’s not like the deer are massive trophies. The state has antler restrictions in only a few public hunting lands, and in most of the state, there will be many young bucks taken. Because the “antlerless” firearms season occurs at the same time, button bucks will be taken as well. When that many younger bucks are removed from the population, the number of mature deer with nice racks becomes much lower.

But this is a state that allows the hunter to take six deer a year.  If you have a family who owns land and have two hunters who have resident rights to it, you’re talking potentially twelve deer killed a year, which could feed a family of four fairly well.

I come from a family of deer hunters, but they were not venison eaters. When I was a kid, every deer that got shot was given to a relative or someone who couldn’t hunt. My grandpa, who loved to hunt everything and would have us eat cooked squirrel brains, wouldn’t even field dress a deer. That was my dad’s job, and for whatever reason, if my dad or my grandpa even smelled venison cooking, it would make their stomachs weak.

I never had this problem, and in the last few years, I’ve learned how to cook venison properly. I much prefer the meat to beef, especially when we’re talking leaving certain steak cuts rare.  These deer have been living well on acorns, and their flesh has that oaky, rich taste, which some call gamey. I call it delicious.

I’ll be in the woods early Monday morning. I don’t know if I’ll get anything.  The odds are usually against my killing anything that first week.  I don’t have access to the best deer bedding grounds, and the hunting pressure means they won’t be moving into the area where I hunt.

My favorite time to go is Thursday evening, when more than half the local hunters are at home watching football games and digesting turkey. I would rather go through waterboarding than watch a football game, so it’s not big loss for me.

I am a naturalist hunter on the quest for meat. My ancestors in Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain hunted the red deer and the roe thousands of years. They got their meat from the forest.

I am doing the same.

And if you really wanted to know what I think of deer, I’d have to say that I love them. They are fascinating animals.  This particular species has been roaming North America virtually unchanged for 3 million years. This animal watched the mammoths rise and fall. It was coursed by Armbruster’s wolf and the American cheetahs.  It saw the elk come down from Beringia– and the bison too. It ran the back country with primitive horses and several species of pronghorn. It quivered and blew out at jaguars and American lions that stalked in the bush, and it dodged the Clovis points of the Siberian hunters who first colonized this land.

The white-tailed deer thrives so well, but this coming week is the beginning of the great cull. Fewer deer mean less pressure on the limited winter forage, which means healthier deer in the early spring. Better winter and spring condition means that does have had a chance to carry fawns to term, and mature does usually have twins if the conditions are good.  Healthier bucks get a better chance to grow nice antlers for the coming year.

A public resource is being managed. Organic meat raised without hormones or antibiotics is easily procured, and stories and yarns are being compiled for exposition that rivals any trophy mount on the wall.

I know deer stories, including ones about the people I barely knew and are no longer with us.

For example:

My Grandpa Westfall once went on a deer drive for my great grandpa, who was getting older.  He valued his clean shot placement, as many of those old time hunters did, and he would not shoot a deer on the run.

But as he grew older, deer hunting became harder for him, so my grandpa decided to jump one out to him.

My grandpa went rustling through the brush to drive one into my great grandpa’s ran, and he happened to bump a nice little buck and a few does that went running in his direction.

Expecting to hear rifle shots, my grandpa was a bit surprised to hear nothing. So when he approached the deer stand, he saw my great grandpa sitting there.

“Did you see those deer?”

“What deer?”

“I ran three out to you. A buck and two does. Why didn’t you shoot?”

“I didn’t see or hear any deer.”

“Well, you should have at least heard them.”

“Well, if there were that many deer coming my way, they must’ve had their sneakers on.”

He didn’t want to tell my grandpa that he appreciated the effort, but that deer drives were against his ethics. He shot deer cleanly, or he didn’t shoot them at all.

These old men will be with me when I’m out on Monday.  I go in their memory, participating in the Great West Virginia Deer Cull.

 

 

 

 

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When I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that one of her childhood dogs killed a civet cat.  I was old enough to know that civets lived in Africa and Asia, so when I got the chance, I asked my dad if grandma had ever been to Africa.  He said “No.” And the whole discussion ended.

I always wondered what grandma was talking about.

When I first started this blog, I was a little confused about the existence of spotted skunks in West Virginia. I asked if anyone had seen a spotted skunk in West Virginia, and of course, I got no response.

But it turns out there are some. It turns out that they are found only in the High Alleghenies, where the snow falls hard every winter.

This perplexed me.  I had always thought of Eastern spotted skunks as being a more or less “Southern” species, and although I often saw range maps of the species that included almost the entire state, I had never knew anyone who had seen one.

But maybe I did.

It turns out that one of the vernacular names for the spotted skunk is “civet cat.”

And that’s when the little anecdote my grandmother told me made a bit more sense. Her childhood dog had killed a “civet cat,” but it had most likely killed a spotted skunk.

As for that broad range map I linked to earlier, I think the reason the range appears to be so truncated now is that the spotted skunk was reviled in much of its range as a vector of rabies. Another common vernacular name for spotted skunk is “phoby cat”– “phoby” is short for “hyrdophobia” (often “hydrophoby” in some dialects)– it is very likely that there was massive persecution of spotted skunks in the lower elevations of the state.

It was just too hard to settle and farm in the higher mountains, and those mountains provided some sort of refuge for what is really a more subtropical species than one would typically find in such snowy country.

My grandmother’s childhood dog likely killed one of the few spotted skunks left in the lower elevations of West Virginia.

But I liked to pretend that she had gone to Africa.

Boyhood flights of fancy are tough to beat.

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Best eclipse ever

Not full in WV, but pretty darn cool!

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I got to see these family photos for the first time today. This is a dog that featured heavily in my dad’s dog stories that he used to tell us when we were kids.

This is Cam, the first AKC dog that my family ever owned. She was a rough collie “like Lassie,” as they say.  My dad is standing to her right. The date is April 1962.

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And like Lassie, she had to have a litter. This one included some tricolors. My uncle Doug is sitting behind the mother collie in May of ’63– twenty years before I was born.

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I had not seen these photos before, though I had seen some rather poor photos of Cam.

The bottom photo really reveals what she was:  She was a collie from a time when they were still very close to the intelligent farm dogs from Scotland from which their kind descend.

She looks gorgeous but more rugged than the collies of one might see today.  She was still very much the “Scotch shepherd” of the American farm and dog fancier magazines.

 

 

 

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The Shawnee called them “wapiti,” which means “white rump.”  The early colonial naturalists called them “red deer,” which is still better than the name they eventually wound up with.

Thomas Jefferson referred to them as “round-horned elk.” In his long debate with Buffon over the theory of “American degeneracy,” Jefferson routinely pointed out the size of the American moose and the “round-horned elk” as being evidence that North American species were every bit as massive as those of Eurasia. Buffon believed that everything that came into the Americas would “degenerate” over time. The climate caused a form of natural selection in which animals in North and South America had to become smaller than those of Eurasia and Africa.  Jefferson, of course, thought this was nonsense.

The elk of Europe was called the “flat-horned” or “palmated elk,” which we now know is the Old World version of the moose, but for whatever reason, the giant Cervus deer of North America got called an “elk.”

Settlers coming through the Alleghenies shot the great deer by the score. Their meat was very much in favor and their hides produced a strong buckskin. By the 1870s, they were extinct from West Virginia. It was one of the last states in the East to hold onto a population, but “progress” eventually caught up to them.

Kentucky and Pennsylvania have been at the game of elk restoration for a long time. Elk were reintroduced to Pennsylvania in 1913, using surplus elk from Yellowstone. Kentucky reintroduced elk from western Kansas in 1997.

And the Kentucky elk range borders on West Virginia. Every once in a while, some elk wander into West Virginia from Kentucky, but they never became established.

In 2015, the legislature passed a resolution calling for elk to be restored (along with the legalization of crossbows for hunting deer and bears).

And the state started looking for ways to do it. Kentucky was the obvious place to contact. Kentucky not only has a freely breeding population, but it has a “seed population” in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. These elk are all free of chronic wasting disease, a contagious brain disease that closely resembles the scrapie in sheep and the infamous “mad cow disease.”

24 elk from that seed population arrived in West Virginia yesterday.  They were turned out in a three-acre holding pen on an old strip mine in Logan County that is now called the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

Soon, they’ll be wandering the coal country. The state envisions an elk population in the Southwest that is roughly contiguous with the elk population of Eastern Kentucky and the newly established population in Southwest Virginia.

Maybe one day, there will be a move to establish elk in parts of Pennsylania near the West Virginia line and then elk will be turned out in Northern West Virginia as well. And maybe they’ll be restored in New York State, too.

And then we’ll have a continuous population of Appalachian elk.

Baby steps.

The truth is there really isn’t that much future for West Virginia.

But there might be if we looked hard at that slogan that lies at the bottom of our license plates and can be seen on every welcome sign at the state lines.

“West Virginia, wild and wonderful.”

And now wild and wonderful enough to have elk.

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I purchased a diaphragm coyote call a few months ago from MFK. I wanted to liven up the blog with some possible coyote photos and videos, and coyote hunting is one of those things I’ve always wanted to try.

It’s much harder than it looks, especially if the coyotes in your area don’t howl that much and are generally unresponsive to howls and other vocalizations.

However, I eventually did get lucky. I set up about 100 feet deeper down an Allegheny bench. I howled three times and let loose a few bitch-in-estrus whimpers.

I noticed some movement to my right. Something yellow was advancing across the bench opposite mine across a small ravine.

That’s when I knew it. I had a coyote coming in. I just got ready for him to come up from the ravine. What follows is, well, pretty hard to believe. If I didn’t have the photos and the video proof, I still wouldn’t believe it.

This is not a zoo animal. This is backwoods West Virginia, and this is a very wild Eastern coyote from a population that is as pressured as any on the East Coast.

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So calm and relaxed that he stops to scratch an itch!

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He paced around me for about ten minutes. He was looking for the bitch. If he started to wander off, I would just whimper a bit through the diaphragm, and he’d come back.

This is one of those moments when you realize how great it is to be alive.

Too look into those wild yet sagacious brush wolf eyes is to be taken back to a time when the only dogs were wild ones.

It was  my pleasure to have had this opportunity.

I met a wild one.

And it doesn’t seem real.

 

 

 

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The Land of Snow

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