The state Division of Natural Resource’s recent efforts significantly increased wildlife management areas in one district where they’ve been scarce.
This story was originally published in the October 2021 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
Written by Jerry Westfall
Photography courtesy of Jerry Westfall
The conservation of wildlife and wildlife habitats is one of the chief missions of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. This mission is most easily accomplished on state-owned Wildlife Management Areas where conservation is emphasized and wildlife recreation such as hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife viewing is featured, too. However, DNR District 6—a 10-county area in western West Virginia with Parkersburg as its headquarters—has a relatively low percentage of WMAs compared to other districts.
To help maintain the balance of one of the most popular wildlife species, white-tailed deer, with its environment, the DNR relies mostly upon regulated recreational sport hunting. Hunter participation requires access, such as the free, public access found on these WMAs. But until recently, WMA access in District 6 was not readily abundant.
Formerly, both resident and non-resident hunters in the western region of the state often utilized commercial forest lands. The Westvaco Corporation—later MeadWestvaco—began buying private property in the area in the mid-1950s, which was planted in hybrid pine plantations to feed pulp and paper mills. Sportsmen and women hunted these properties for years, often paying a nominal $5 access permit fee. During the late 1980s, industrial forest landowners began leasing their properties to private hunting clubs, which resulted in a significant reduction in public access to these properties. Due to the relatively small amount of public lands in this region of the state, the DNR identified it as a problem requiring a solution.
In recent years, Heartwood Forestland Fund IV indicated they were interested in liquidating some long-held land assets. The DNR saw an opportunity to expand the public land system in District 6 by purchasing some of these former commercial timber lands. During this same time, gas pipelines were proposed for construction across West Virginia. The pipeline development companies working with the DNR provided funds to offset impacts to core forest habitats and the associated wildlife species. Funds garnered from the pipeline projects, together with state hunting and fishing license dollars and Federal Wildlife Restoration Act funding, could be used to purchase new WMAs or expand existing WMAs within the District.
However, there was one puzzle piece missing to finalize the purchase: a liaison who could assist with brokering a large land transaction between the DNR and Heartwood Forestland Fund IV. That liaison was The Conservation Fund—a land trust organization based in Arlington, Virginia, that specializes in brokering large conservation purchases. Without The Conservation Fund, it is unlikely that the land transfer could have happened.
In 2018 and 2019, these lands—ultimately 31,218 acres—were successfully acquired, and they significantly expanded the public land system in the western region of the state. As a result of this acquisition, seven new WMAs were created: Burning Springs, Federal Ridge, Little Kanawha River, Lynn Camp, Sandy Creek, Toll Gate, and Walker Creek. Additional acreage was also added to three existing WMAs: Frozen Camp, Ritchie Mines, and Sand Hill. A portion of a fourth existing WMA, Hughes River WMA, which had formerly been under a lease arrangement, was also acquired by the DNR and other new property added.
The DNR created a color-coded county map that shows new District 6 WMAs in red and existing WMAs with added acreage in green. There have been some slight losses in District 6 acreage recently, including a leased portion of Sand Hill WMA being sold by the owner. But other inholdings and adjacent properties of willing sellers have been purchased, and still other properties are under evaluation. These acquisitions advanced District 6 from relatively few acres per hunter prior to the land purchase to considerably more acres per hunter.
A Unique Resource
Much of the recent purchase contained a unique forest type: planted hybrid loblolly-pitch pine crosses, which were intended to be harvested by the original owners for use in pulp and paper mills. Hybrid pines provide adequate wildlife cover when young, but soon mature and provide limited cover and forage. Typically, these stands require at least 25 years to be merchantable. The DNR plans to harvest these stands as they mature and become marketable. Many stands have already been targeted for harvest, and many more will be in the future.
The initial vegetation that is regenerated after logging provides a valuable and much-needed habitat in West Virginia termed early successional forests. ESF is a type of habitat resulting from clear-cut forestry, typified by young, thick stands of very small diameter saplings and shrubs. The ESF habitat provides great deer forage and fawning and hiding cover as well as foraging and cover habitat for bear, grouse, turkey, and a host of non-game species. As forests mature this habitat type diminishes, negatively affecting the wildlife that depend upon it for their life cycle needs.
The DNR plans to maintain a small portion of the harvested hybrid pine stands as continuously open habitat. Rare in a heavily forested state like West Virginia, open habitats are foraging areas for turkey and grouse poults. Harvested hybrid pine stands require stump removal to convert to clearings, either through approved excavation projects, eventual stump deterioration, or controlled burning. Controlled burning removes relict stumps, slash, and other vegetation; provides sunlight and recharges the seedbank; and suppresses woody encroachment. Many native and some non-native plant species have seeds already in the soil or can disperse to the site, promoting lush vegetation regrowth.
Although acquiring this property is a boon to the hunting and fishing public and to others who enjoy wildlife, much work is needed on these areas to reach their full potential. Several graveled parking areas and information signs have been installed for WMA users, with others planned. Most of the property boundaries of the new WMAs and the expansions have been painted and signed by DNR staff or by contracted survey crews. A partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation has allowed NWTF to function as an intermediary between the DNR and contractors and survey crews. One challenge has been the removal of abandoned structures like campers and tree stands, and the DNR has partnered successfully with the Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan—a unit of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection—on larger cleanup projects.
Mapping is also essential to provide the needed informational resources to maximize the use of these new areas. The DNR’s Geographic Information Systems Unit has produced topographic maps of the WMAs, which will be updated as expansions occur.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is vehicular access. The new WMAs have many internal roads, which were regularly maintained by the previous commercial forest owner. Annual maintenance funds for these roads are not immediately available to the DNR. As a result, repair and maintenance opportunities are incrementally pursued through the NWTF partnerships, associated logging operations, and possible West Virginia Division of Highways (WVDOH) partnerships.
In instances where DNR-owned roads cannot withstand vehicular traffic, they are gated —allowing seasonal openings or walk-in access only. Hunters are encouraged to pursue inexpensive options for transporting harvested deer from these walk-in areas, such as folding game carts. County roads through WMAs are administered by the WVDOH, and their repair and maintenance are dictated by DOH budgets and scheduling. These roads are often very low priority because they have no occupied dwellings. In addition, hunters are reminded that ATV/UTV use in WMAs is only allowed on designated county roads.
These recently acquired lands offer some rather unique opportunities for the sporting public and wildlife enthusiasts. A few of the WMAs are adjacent to large water bodies: The Burning Springs and Little Kanawha River WMAs, for example, lie close to the Little Kanawha River, and the Hughes River and Ritchie Mines WMAs sit near the South Fork of Hughes River. In these unique areas, WMAs can be accessed via watercraft, allowing hunters to access undisturbed areas. Another unique situation is the proximity of the North Bend Rail Trail. Hunters can access Walker Creek WMA via the North Bend Rail Trail on bicycle using a gun sock and bike cart.
The highlight of the recent District 6 purchase is undoubtedly the 8,255-acre Little Kanawha River WMA, which is now managed as an Older-aged Deer Management Area—the first in District 6. As with other Older-aged Deer Management Areas in the state, these areas restrict buck harvest to animals with a minimum outside antler spread of 14 inches from approximately ear tip to ear tip. Many hunters enjoy hunting in areas where bucks are allowed to mature to a certain antler size before harvest.
Hunters, anglers, trappers, and other wildlife enthusiasts are encouraged to check out WVDNR’s new District 6 WMAs. These areas were acquired for public benefit and enjoyment. The DNR hopes the public will appreciate the opportunities offered, and the efforts required, to make these areas accessible for future generations to enjoy.
Map It Out
Download WMA topographic maps at: www.wvdnr.gov/wmamapproj/index.shtm or use the DNR hunting map tool at www.mapwv.gov/huntfish/map/?v=hunt. Hunters and the public may also stop by the DNR District 6 Office at 2311 Ohio Avenue in Parkersburg during regular business hours to pick up individual map