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Research at Virginia Tech Seeks to Understand Interactions Between Predators and Whitetailed Deer

At the turn of the last century, the wildlife and forest resources in much of the country were decimated following more than a century of habitat destruction and unregulated market hunting. Natural resources seemed limitless in the early years of our large nation, a notion later disproved during the late 19th century. Sportsmen were the first to sound the call to action, with a conservation movement that created state wildlife management agencies, funded through a combination of hunting license sales and excise taxes on equipment such as firearms and ammunition. This movement also motivated the creation of public lands that many of us currently use in various outdoor pursuits. This successful model of conservation we enjoy today has become known as the North American Model of Wildlife Management and Virginia exemplifies this model.

Virginia Tech graduate students David Mcnitt and Robert Alonso are conducting the Carnivore study in Virginia’s Bath and Rockingham Counties. The bear trap pictured here is an important part of this project. The trapping phase and radio collaring of black bears, coyotes and bobcats is well underway. Bear GPS collars are expected to provide data through December 2019. The GPS collars have been attached to 22 bears, 17 coyotes and 21 bobcats.

There was a time when even whitetailed deer, ducks, and wild turkey were at perilously low numbers in the state. Today, Virginia contains robust populations of many wildlife species. Some carnivore species have recently joined the ranks of recovered wildlife in Virginia. Managers and researchers are now facing the complexity of understanding and managing these carnivores and their role in ecosystems, particularly in the large expanses of public lands in western Virginia. To add to the complexity, a newcomer is on the landscape, the coyote. These complexities, and our need to understand them, led to the creation of the initial Virginia Appalachian Coyote Study (VACS) in 2011, and the current follow-up study, the Virginia Appalachian Carnivore Study (VACS II).

Black bears and bobcats, two of Virginia’s native carnivores took a long time to recover. Harvest records indicate that only in recent decades have these species’ populations climbed to their current levels. Also, in recent decades, coyotes extended into Virginia as part of the species’ eastward range expansion. Carnivores play a significant role in ecosystems; therefore, it is essential that we gain local information on these species and their interactions with other species, namely prey species. A decrease in deer harvest on public lands in counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, coinciding with the apparent increase of predator populations, and a decrease in suitable deer habitat, presents a fitting location to investigate the role of carnivores in the area.

Robert Alonso attaches a GPS collar to one of the 17 coyotes that have been trapped. The coyote collars will collect data until around April 2019.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) initiated VACS prompted by support from local deer hunters in western Virginia and the Virginia Deer Hunters Association. VDGIF granted funding to Dr. Marcella Kelly, professor in Virginia Tech’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department, to enlist two graduate students to study population status, diet, and spatial ecology of coyotes in western Virginia. The study was based in Bath and Rockingham Counties. Findings from that study revealed that whitetailed deer occurred in 74% of coyote scats but were also found in 35% and 43% of bobcat and bear scats, respectively.

The diet findings from the initial coyote study prompted further research questions regarding all three of the carnivore species. Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears have all been documented as both scavengers and predators of whitetailed deer throughout their geographic ranges to varying degrees. The initial diet findings showed us that all three species feed on deer, but do not resolve how much of the consumption is scavenging versus direct predation. Those findings also do not indicate how many deer are consumed, as one deer carcass can contribute to the contents of many carnivore scats. In a multi-carnivore landscape, it is not only important to understand the roles of each species individually, it is also important to understand these species as a carnivore community to understand any potential impacts on whitetailed deer. The initial coyote study also highlighted the fact that both black bears and coyotes have been previously studied in western Virginia, but very little information regarding bobcats exists for the entire Central Appalachian region.

The VACS II project was created in response to these questions. In 2016 VDGIF granted funding to conduct research on coyotes and bobcats. Additional funding was provided by VDHA, the Safari Club International Foundation, and private donors to include bears in the research project. PhD student Robert Alonso and Masters student Dave McNitt were brought on to conduct the research, which is focused in Bath County. The primary goal of VACS II is to better understand the role of coyotes, bobcats, and black bears as whitetailed deer predators and scavengers in Central Appalachia. We also aim to increase basic knowledge of all three species, particularly bobcats, for which local ecology is poorly understood. We are using multiple research techniques to answer our questions, many of which rely on the latest technology.

Our principal technique is the use of GPS collars. We have spent much of the past two years capturing and collaring coyotes, bobcats, and black bears in western Bath County. Over the course of the project, we have collared a total of 17 coyotes (9 males, 8 females), 21 bobcats (14 males, 7 females), and 22 bears (14 males, 8 females). Currently in the field, we have 10 functioning GPS collars on coyotes, 8 functioning collars on bobcats and 13 functioning collars on bears. Coyote collars will finish collecting data around April, 2019. The bobcat collars will last roughly until October of this year, and bear collars will last up through December of 2019. The GPS collars we are using communicate data to us via satellites on a regular basis. Receiving the data in almost real time allows us to track the animals on the ground and search for potential kill or scavenging sites.

We determine the locations to investigate by looking for spatial clusters of points that indicate a place where a collared animal has spent a long amount of time. Although we are specifically trying to find scavenging sites or kill sites of whitetailed deer, commonly these clusters end up being bed sites. Sometimes we also find feeding sites on other types of prey such as skunks, groundhogs, and opossums. In the case of bears, we often find general foraging areas where they have foraged on soft mast, flipped rocks, or dug at old rotten logs. Over the summer of 2017, we investigated 83 coyote clusters, 30 bear clusters, and 29 bobcat clusters to search for predation and scavenging events on whitetailed deer. Over the winter of 2017 and 2018, we investigated 38 coyote clusters and 34 bobcat clusters to search for predation and scavenging events on whitetailed deer. Analysis of our cluster search data is pending.

David Mcnitt collars one of the 21 bobcats that is part of the study while Robert Alonso and Dr. Marcella Kelly watch. Data collection from the bobcats will last roughly through October of 2018.

The GPS collars are also fitted with accelerometers, which collect fine scale activity data. These accelerometers collect such fine scale data that we can detect whether an animal is walking, running, feeding, or bedded down. We aim to use this activity data, linked with the GPS collar data, to help tease apart which clusters of GPS points represent resting sites, scavenging sites, or direct predation events. In addition, 10 of the bear collars also contain video cameras, cutting-edge technology which will provide rare footage from the bear’s perspective, hopefully capturing footage of predation or scavenging behavior. Unlike the GPS collar data that is transmitted to us via satellite, we must physically retrieve the collars to get the activity data from accelerometer unit. While some collars have drop-off devices, we largely rely on cooperation of hunters to return collars from harvested animals.

We also monitor deer carcasses with remote cameras to understand scavenging hierarchy, interactions, and competition among the three predators at carcass sites. From 2017-2018 we established and monitored 36 scavenging sites with remote cameras in Bath County and in Giles County. Preliminary analysis on a portion of our scavenging sites has examined the amount of time it takes each carnivore species to discover a carcass, time spent feeding, and number of returns, for each carnivore species. Most carcasses were discovered by predators within five hours to a few days following establishment of the carcass site. Black bears discovered carcasses first in 50% of scavenging sites, followed by bobcats (37% of the time), then coyotes (13% of the time). When multiple species visited carcasses, coyotes were most frequently the second species to arrive and bears were most frequently the first and third species to arrive, while bobcats never visited after two other species had been there. Bears had the most overall returns to carcasses (29) after an initial visit. Coyotes spent the longest average amount of time feeding per carcass per night per site (2.75 minutes), while bobcats had the longest total time feeding across all carcass sites (748 minutes). Data entry is ongoing at Virginia Tech with the assistance of undergraduate volunteers. Carcass sites are continually being deployed and monitored to continue to collect scavenging data and document predator behavior and interactions.

The final technique we use in our research is genetic analysis of fecal DNA collected from large scale scat surveys across western Bath County, which we use to track deer consumption rates over the course of the study. During this project, we completed two periods of scat collection, hiking transects on trails and dirt roads that total over 100 miles in length. In June and July, 2016, we collected 1085 scat samples. Of those samples 669 contained enough DNA to identify predator species, with 310 bobcat scats, 245 bear scats, and 113 coyote scats. We are currently in the process of working with a wildlife genetics lab at the University of Idaho to identify how many of those scats contained DNA from deer. This winter/spring we completed our last round of predator scat transects during the months of March and April, 2018. In total, we collected 1128 samples which will be analyzed this fall and next spring to identify the predator species. Once predator species has been identified we will determine how many scats also contain deer DNA.

The end of summer 2018 marks the completion of the field work phase of the study. The following months will involve organizing data, running analyses, and presenting results. Genetic analyses are currently underway. Many hours of photos and videos from carcass sites are currently being processed with the help of undergraduate volunteers and independent study students at Virginia Tech. We will conduct statistical analysis, incorporating all the various types of data, throughout the next year and results will be published and presented as different components of the project are completed. We plan to continue to update VDHA as our research progresses. If you happen to legally harvest a collared bear, bobcat, or coyote this hunting or trapping season please contact us at vtvacs@gmail.com or at (540) 315-3913. We thank VDHA and its members for the continued and consistent support provided to these projects over the years. Stay tuned to Whitetail Times for project updates in the future.

Editor’s note: David Mcnitt and Robert Alonso are two of the eighteen college student recipients that the VDHA Lee Roy Gordon Scholarship Grant has been awarded to since the program was established in 1989. Scholarship grants and funds to purchase equipment needed for research projects has been an important part of this outreach program. The VDHA takes great pride in what we have fulfilled over the last 29 years, through research study. Our organization is proud of what our students have accomplished and look forward to continuing this support!

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • April 2nd, 2019

Random Thoughts and Observations on Coyotes

Member surveys conducted by the Virginia Deer Hunters Association (VDHA), in spring 2013 and spring 2015, indicated that declining deer herds and coyotes are clearly on the minds of Virginia’s deer hunters. In 2015, when VDHA members were asked, “Do you believe that the ever-increasing number of coyotes have an impact on the deer herd in your county?” 86% said yes, and only 14% said no.

In the past several years, it has been impossible to have a discussion with a deer hunter in Virginia, or anywhere in the eastern United States for that matter, without the topic of coyotes and coyote deer predation coming up. The current popular deer hunting literature is packed with articles demonizing coyotes, stating that they will be the end of deer hunting and deer management as we know it.

Where did the coyotes come from?

First and foremost, no matter what you hear, the Department did not stock coyotes in Virginia. It makes for a great rumor, but it is false.

Over the last 40-plus years, I have watched with great interest as coyotes moved from the west into Mississippi, through Alabama and southern Georgia (where I am from), and then north into South Carolina (where I once worked) and North Carolina before finally coming into Virginia. Decades before the southern half of this pincer movement began, coyotes were moving east and south across the Midwest, through the Great Lake states, and into the Northeast. It would not be a stretch at all to say that Virginia and the mid-Atlantic were the last area in the eastern United States to be colonized by coyotes.

Photo: Shutterstock.

Why did the coyotes come to Virginia?

As most of the large mammalian predators (e.g., cougars, wolves, bears, etc.) were removed from Virginia’s landscape over the last four hundred years, the stage was set for an existing predator (bears) or a new predator (coyotes) to fill the void and seize the opportunity. If nothing else, coyotes are one of the greatest opportunists in nature. French author Francois Rabelais is credited for saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” over 500 years ago. The coyotes we now have in the eastern United States are simply Mother Nature filling in a huge predator vacuum. The arrival of an adaptable deer predator like the coyote makes perfect sense and should have been expected.

Is there anything special about coyotes?

Yes, at least five major things in my opinion. First, they are one of the most adaptable animals on earth. They can live in any environment in Virginia, including some of the most densely populated urban areas in the United States. This includes living among the 1.1 million human residents of Fairfax County. Not only do they survive, they thrive.

Second, they thrive because they are the ultimate opportunist/generalist. They can and will eat anything and everything. They eat insects/bugs, small mammals (mice, rats, and rabbits), amphibians, reptiles, birds (including turkeys), larger mammals including groundhogs, raccoons, opossums, cats, dogs, and most importantly deer (fawns, wounded/crippled deer, and possibly healthy adults). I have seen numerous trail camera pictures of coyotes eating corn. Lastly, they are excellent scavengers, eating road kill, garbage, dog food, and agricultural crops like watermelons.

Third, they are very mobile and cover large home range areas. According to coyote research projects Dr. Michael Chamberlin and his associates at the University of Georgia have documented, home ranges for resident coyotes can range from 1,400 to 12,000 acres (~2 – 19 mi2), with an average of about 5,000 acres (~8 mi2). Transient coyotes (i.e., those coyotes without established home ranges) cover much larger areas and, in Dr. Chamberlin’s research, individual coyotes have been documented to disperse and travel distances of several hundred miles or more.

Fourth, they can have high reproductive rates. Because of this, their populations are able to colonize areas quickly and also recover from high mortality rates literally in one breeding season. This makes controlling coyotes, if it can be done (see below), a continuous annual exercise.

Last, they are highly intelligent. Ask any trapper or predator/coyote hunter. Like crows, you may fool them once, but you will not fool them twice.

Figure 1.

How many coyotes are there in Virginia?

The fact is no one knows, but it would be safe to say that coyote populations have exploded and completely spread across the entire state, over the past two decades. When I first moved to Virginia, back in the early 1990’s, I recall that the only places with sizeable coyote populations were some isolated areas in far southwest Virginia and the Alleghany Highland counties. At that time, the public would call in when they saw a coyote, and the Department actually kept data on coyote reports and sightings across most of Virginia. Today, coyotes have become so common that over most of Virginia, sightings are rarely reported, and the Department stopped keeping coyote sighting data many years ago.

The Department’s hunter and bow hunter surveys both illustrate the increase in coyote populations throughout Virginia, over the past several decades (see Figure 1). In recent years, the hunter survey estimates that Virginia hunters are killing about 20,000-25,000 coyotes annually. Twenty years ago, this number would probably have been about 1,000-3,000.

Also, the Department’s 2014 bow hunter survey indicated that statewide an archery deer hunter saw a coyote on average about every 150 hours afield. Back in 1998, when the bow hunter survey was initiated, bow hunters reported seeing a coyote about every 660 hours afield (see Figure 1).

Both surveys indicate that coyote populations were increasing rapidly up until about a decade ago. Since that time, both surveys indicate that coyote populations may have stabilized or are increasing more slowly. Note both surveys still show significant annual variation between years over the past decade.

Figure 2.

One of the most interesting things in the bow hunter survey data is the apparent difference in coyote sighting rates east and west of the Blue Ridge (Figure 2). With the exception of 2014, on average over the past decade, or so, a bow hunter west of the Blue Ridge is about three times more likely to see a coyote per unit time afield than an eastern bow hunter. This data suggests that coyote population densities are higher west of the Blue Ridge Mountains than they are east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and/or coyotes are more visible to bow hunters in western Virginia. It is probably a combination of both.

A recent predator study conducted for the Department by Dr. Marcella Kelly and Ph.D. student Dana Morin, of Virginia Tech, estimated coyote population densities in Bath County at 22 coyotes per 100 square miles (0.22 mi2) and in western Rockingham County at 14 coyotes per 100 square miles (0.14 mi2). Compared to other areas and studies, I am told that these two coyote population density estimates are quite low. In the book Eastern Coyote: The Story of its Success, the author Gerry Parker estimated average coyote densities in the northeastern United States to be around 26-52 per 100 mi2.

After having discussed this issue with several coyote authorities, I would not be surprised at all if coyote densities in many areas of Virginia with good habitat were equal to or greater than a coyote per square mile.

Is the eastern coyote the same as the western coyote?

No. They are different in at least two ways. First, as coyotes made their northern migration swing, recent genetic studies indicate that they hybridized with other canid/dog species. For example, data published in 2014 regarding the northeastern coyote indicates that it is 64% coyote, 13% gray wolf, 11% eastern wolf, and 10% domestic dog (http://www.gothamcoyote.com/news/its-a-coyote-wolf-dog-eat-dog-world). Other studies show different proportions, but suffice it to say the northeastern coyote is a Heinz 57 coyote with varying degrees of wolf and domestic dog genetics. I did not spend much time looking into coyote genetics, but I would expect that the coyote migration that came from the south contains little to no wolf genetics or influence.

Second, probably because of the dog and wolf genetic influence, the eastern coyote is bigger than the western coyote. Western coyotes average about 20-30 pounds and eastern coyotes generally average between 30 and 40 pounds. Because of Bergman’s rule you would also expect coyote weights to increase from south to north.

Are coyotes having a significant impact on Virginia’s deer herds?

The current answer is that we do not know for sure. Obviously, coyotes are preying on and killing fawns all across Virginia. However, whether or not this predation is having a population level impact is currently unknown. Deer herds are down across much of Virginia, relative to where they were 5-10 years ago, but much of that decline is probably due to liberal seasons and bag limits. Years ago, in my annual deer season forecast articles, I began writing that the large increases seen in Virginia’s recent deer kill numbers were almost entirely due to elevated antlerless deer kill levels, and that elevated antlerless deer kill levels would eventually result in a decline in the statewide deer herd and deer kill numbers. Now we are seeing lower deer herds and lower deer kill numbers, and deer hunters are blaming coyotes. To use a basketball/soccer analogy, the coyotes may deserve an assist, but I still think that liberal either-sex hunting regulations are the primary cause of the reduced deer herds and deer kill.

Ultimately, the truth will come out over the next decade as the Department reduces pressure on the deer herd in certain areas to meet the deer population objectives in the Department’s Deer Management Plan. Many of these adjustments or reductions in female deer kill levels have been made during the last two regulations cycles. If the reduced deer herd and deer kill numbers resulted from liberal regulations, then as the Department backs off pressure, the deer herds and deer kill will respond and come back. Two reviewers of this article noted that the deer population recovery, if it recovers, will be much slower than in the past before coyotes got here. If, however, deer populations are down because of coyote predation, deer populations will remain depressed or decline even more.

If coyote depressed herds occur they will be most likely in poor habitats. For example, the most likely area in Virginia would be the western mountains, where mature forests on thin soils limit deer herd productivity.

If coyotes are a limiting factor on fawn recruitment what could happen?

For the past several decades, Virginia, and most other eastern states, have maintained moderate to low density deer herds with fairly high deer kill/mortality rates. This deer management approach is possible because the heavy hunting losses are offset each year by fawn recruitment. In these deer herds, fawns typically compose a significant proportion of the deer herd at the beginning of each hunting season.

If coyote predation significantly decreased fawn recruitment and high deer kill pressure was maintained on antlerless deer, the deer population and the total deer kill could be expected to decline significantly and quickly.

Additionally, the large annual antlerless deer kill level required to control deer population numbers would have to be reduced significantly. For example in Virginia, instead of killing 200,000+ deer each year, the total annual deer kill could fall to the 150,000 range or even lower.

Surprisingly, overall deer herd condition would improve because there is typically a fairly strong, inverse relationship between deer numbers and deer condition. If deer numbers were significantly reduced, overall deer quality (e.g., weights, antlers, etc.) would actually improve.

Do coyotes kill healthy adult deer?

I used to think not, but when I made this comment in front of one of my deer biologist friends, Dr. Grant Wood, of Missouri, he cautioned that he thought I might be wrong. According to Grant, in certain areas or certain conditions, coyotes may learn to hunt in packs much like wolves. Under these circumstances, Grant indicated that he thought coyotes could be effective predators of healthy adult deer.

Several of my deer biologist peers are of the opinion that coyotes do not routinely prey on healthy adult deer, but coyote predation research projects are inconclusive. In my opinion, the jury is still out on this issue.

What about crippled and wounded deer?

Again, no data, but I think coyotes are probably taking care of much of our current deer hunting wounding/crippling losses. Over the past several years, numerous deer hunters have described a curious behavior in coyotes they see while deer hunting. While they are observing deer, a coyote will appear. The coyote will then go toward the deer just close enough to get them to run off and scatter, then it simply goes about its business like nothing happened. I bet if one of those deer had a pronounced limp or visible injury, the coyote would respond differently. I routinely get calls from deer hunters shooting deer late in the evening stating that coyotes are finding the deer before the hunter does. Twenty years ago, you could leave a deer in the woods overnight and find it the next morning. I did on several occasions. I could not do that today.

Can coyote predation on deer fawns be controlled by coyote hunting and trapping?

Yes and no. Coyotes can be, and are being, controlled on property in some areas by intensive hunting and trapping programs, but success in this effort requires a significant annual investment of time and resources (money). These intensive coyote control programs are typically conducted in late winter and early spring just prior to the fawning season. In some areas, these control efforts have shown good results. In others, they have not. The jury is still out on the fawn recruitment benefits of coyote control programs. One common denominator is that these programs must be conducted annually. With their high reproductive potential, coyote populations are generally able to rebound in a single year.

What is Virginia going to do about coyotes?

As I have noted in previous articles, we are going to learn to live and coexist with coyotes in the future. There is no realistic alternative. I realize this is not a popular opinion with Virginia’s deer hunters.

They are already a nuisance species and can be hunted and shot 24/7/365, but short of declaring them a nuisance species there is not much else that can be done. The typical and historical reaction to coyotes is to institute a bounty system, but several hundred years of experience has proven that these systems don’t work. Our ancestors have been trying to eliminate coyotes from this continent with bounty systems for centuries, and how is that working out?

I was quoted in an online article by Bill Cochran a while back, in which I stated, “If coyotes are the problem (i.e., limiting deer populations), we are screwed.” I stand by that statement. Even if coyote predation was conclusively identified as a controlling factor on Virginia’s deer herds, unless disease outbreaks control coyotes, I do not know or believe that there is any practical or economical way for us as an Agency, or hunters as a group, to control coyote populations over nearly 36,000 square miles of deer habitat.

And coyotes are not the only deer predators we are dealing with in Virginia. Black bears are capable deer fawn predators, and black bear populations are at all-time high numbers across Virginia. There are also bobcats.

Will coyotes fundamentally change deer hunting as we know it in Virginia?

Recently, in some areas of the Southeast, reductions in deer populations have been attributed to coyote predation especially when combined with high antlerless deer kill levels. At the same time, deer appear to have been able to coexist with coyotes in many habitats in the Southeast, Midwest, and Northeast for decades. The question is which coyote/deer relationship will hold true in Virginia? Time will tell.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Matt Knox, a regular contributor to Whitetail Times, is the deer project coordinator for Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Knox did his graduate study at the University of Georgia and is an avid deer hunter. Our author welcomes questions and comments from our readers via email at Matt.Knox@dgif.virginia.gov.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • March 5th, 2019

Pope and Young is Not a Law Firm

Whenever you write about real people it’s challenging. When you write about real people who are historical figures, such as Saxton Pope and Arthur Young, it triples the challenge. Many writers more skilled than I have tackled the legacy of these two men and often in the form of full length books. I’ve been asked by our editor to cram this into my archery column. So … here we go.

Let’s get something out of the way. I’m not a horn hunter. I’m a meat hunter. The latter doesn’t mean indiscriminate “brown-is-down”, and I launch arrows at spikes every time I see one. At my age, I’ve learned patience and value the interaction with nature and the observation of the prey more than I do the kill. I’m more interested in refining woodsman skills, paying it forward by recruiting/training new hunters, and pushing the exploration envelope to hunt where this man has never hunted before. The entire hunting industry (bow and gun) revolves around big bucks, bigger horns, mass, G-2’s, blah, blah. We are slathered with terms like “stud”, “beast”, “pig”, “slob”, “giant”. We see the mounts at every single hunting show. I get it. Dreams of monster bucks are in all our heads and perhaps that’s by continual brainwashing, but let’s face it, none of us, including this meat hunter, expect to realize the dream. If we do, great! If we don’t, we shouldn’t be disappointed. None of this is a slam against horn hunters, aka trophy hunter. On the contrary, I have tremendous respect for the higher skill level or plump wallet it takes to be able to take down an animal that has successfully eluded hunters like me. While avid, experienced and energized as a bowhunter, I don’t have the chops to get in close on a Pope and Young animal.

Wait. Who are Saxton Pope and Arthur Young? Regardless of age, as time passes and our information-saturated world piles new and addictive stuff upon our brains, some history begins to fade, so here’s a refresher. Saxton Pope was born in Texas, in 1875, the son of a U.S. Army surgeon. 1875?! Yikes, I can just hear our young bowhunters tuning out. The year 1975 is ancient to them! Saxton Pope is often called the “Father of Modern Archery” and no doubt is viewed by some as a veritable dinosaur of archery. Man, you think Fred Bear is old school?! Saxton Pope is old, old, old school. Like his Dad, Saxton became a doctor and specifically a surgeon. He married Dr. Emma Wightman, a college classmate. Together they raised four kids: Saxton Jr., Elizabeth, Virginia and Willard Lee Pope. I’ve read three books and a ton of online content preparing for this article. How this man evolved into the “Father of Modern Archery” is nothing short of divine. God’s hand is the only explanation. Although Dr. Pope was always a hunter, he only became a bowhunter when a 49-year-old native American literally, and figuratively, walked out of the woods starving and in search of food. White Americans who essentially stole Native American land and pushed them out called this man “the last wild Indian”. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this man his name, Ishi. In this man’s Yahi culture, it was rude to ask someone’s name. When asked his name, he said, “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no Yahi had ever spoken his name. “Ishi” was the last member of the Yahi, a group of the Yana people that prospered for generations in California. The bottom line is that Ishi had no immunity to the diseases of civilization and was often in ill health. He was treated by a Professor of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco, Saxton T. Pope. Enter the hand of God. The good doctor Pope and patient Ishi became friends and the transfer of native American knowledge on building bows and handmade arrows transferred across a racial, societal and human divide.

That’s Dr. Saxton Pope, on the left, and his hunting buddy and fellow “Father of Bowhunting” Arthur Young, on the right. Ask yourself if you could survive an Alaskan hunt with no firearm for protection, no Gore-Tex and only your stick bow and skill. Google “Art Young Alaskan video” and watch a 30-minute movie that will blow your mind.

Dr. Pope hunted with Ishi and took the craft out into the world, and here’s the key, filmed several memorable hunts which entered into the public eye and became Kurt Gowdy’s Wild World of Sports of its day.

“I walked boldly out into the open to meet the bears. I practically invited them to charge since they were reputed to be so easily insulted. At first, they paid little attention to me, then the two in advance sat up on their haunches in astonishment and curiosity. I approached to fifty yards, then the largest brownie began champing his jaws and growling: Then he ‘pinned back his ears’ preparing to come at me. Just as he was about to lunge forward I shot him in the chest. The arrow went deep and stuck out a foot beyond his shoulder. While this was going on an old female also stood in a menacing attitude, but as the wounded bear galloped past her, she came to the ground and ran diagonally from us. All of them followed suit, and as they swept out of the field of vision the wounded bear weakened and fell less than a hundred yards from the camera.”

You mix the mystique of American Indian culture and spirituality, with footage and writing like that and it’s bound to ignite a passion in men and women who want to do the same thing. Sound familiar? Earlier, I wrote about monster bucks, which is the modern version of this ancient fire in the belly. Back in the day, stuff like this was hidden and not in your face. But our modern fire had to start somewhere, and it was Dr. Pope, by way of his compassion in treating a fellow human, that brought this beginning.

Dr. Pope put into words I couldn’t conjure why I love bowhunting vs. other weapons. He said, “Here we have a weapon of beauty and romance. He who shoots with a bow, puts his life’s energy into it. The force behind the flying shaft must be placed there by the archer. By the most adroit cleverness, he must approach within striking distance, and when he speeds his low whistling shaft and strikes his game, he has won by the strength of arm and nerve. It is a noble sport.

Co-existing in the world, but not known to each other, was Arthur H. Young.

“At first, we archers hunted squirrels and rabbits, and the doubters told us we could not kill deer. We killed deer, and they raised the ante to bear. Right straight through the list we went until we had killed every species of American game fairly, including the grizzly bear of our Rockies and the brown grizzly of Alaska,”

Mr. Young was born August 17, 1883, in Kelseyville, California, the fourth of five children. His father, William Gaylord Young, was a school teacher, businessman and Union Army veteran who had moved west in 1881 and settled in Kelseyville. Art Young was an accomplished swimmer who trained for the Olympics, and as legend has it, was never beat in the 220, 440 and 880-yard events. His Dad passed away, and he gave up his swimming ambitions, returning to California to get the family business squared away. Once that task was completed, he spent the next 14 years of his life working for the San Francisco Call newspaper.

Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. In his native language there was no word for goodbye, so in English he said: “You stay, I go.” I say you should go to the woods with someone who has never been and plant the seed to grow yourself and another bowhunter! Photo courtesy of a photographer for the University of California Museum of Anthropology. ca. 1911-1916 Photographer unknown.

Enter a guy not many people know. He is sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Father of Bowhunting”. His name was William “Chief” Compton. Will Compton was born in Michigan, in September of 1863. Early on in his life, the family moved to Nebraska where Chief’s lifelong love affair with archery began. In those days, The West was still wild and Nebraska was the frontier. To put it into perspective, when Compton moved to Nebraska, Custer was still riding the range; the first cattle drives had occurred only five years prior; Oklahoma was still Indian Territory; and the Homestead Act was in its infancy. Suffice it to say Compton was born into the true Old West.

During his childhood, he was brought under the tutelage of some Native American Sioux near his hometown of Norfolk. From them he leaned Indian lore, the ways of nature, and how to build Sioux style archery equipment. From the Sioux he learned not only to make Plains short bows, but also craft his own arrows.

Unlike Pope and Young who had day jobs, Will “Chief” Compton did not. He rambled his way across America doing odd jobs here and there to survive but chose the nomadic life to support his passion for bowhunting. You see where this is going? It was Will Compton who introduced his friend Art Young to Dr. Saxton Pope, who in turn introduced Ishi. They were a merry band of traditional archery enthusiasts that hunted together and shared knowledge of bow and arrow building.

Ironically, neither Dr. Saxton Pope nor Arthur Young had absolutely ANYTHING to do with the Pope & Young club. That club was founded in 1961 as a non-profit, scientific organization whose charter revolves around bettering the image of bowhunting. The Club was named in honor of pioneer bowhunters Dr. Saxton Pope and Arthur Young. Today, carrying on the vision of Pope and Young, the club prides itself on its mission to protect our bowhunting heritage – promoting its rich values and adherence to strong fair chase ethics.

Summary: Our passion for bowhunting is not new. We are never alone in this passion as Ishi, Dr. Pope, Art Young, Will Compton and countless thousands of us prove. God works in his mysterious ways to bring people together against what appear to be impossible odds, and the net result is something that generations beyond them perfect and enjoy and pay forward. It’s not about the horn, although as I said, there’s nothing wrong with goals surrounding inches of bone. What bowhunting seems to be about, as best I can tell, is allowing yourself to be open to be an instrument; challenging yourself to go beyond what you think is possible and choosing archery as your vehicle.

Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. In his native language there was no word for goodbye, so in English he said, “You stay, I go.” I say you should go to the woods with someone who has never been, and plant the seed to grow yourself and another bowhunter!

An oh yeah … wear your safety harness!

Editor’s note: Bob Peck, a staff writer for Whitetail Times, lives in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, with his wife and best friend of 25 years and their three children. Bob has been an accomplished bowhunter for over 45 years and is an acknowledged expert in teaching survival skills. He has worked in the hunting industry for over 17 years for a veritable “Who’s Who” of manufacturers and outdoor hunting celebrities. Bob is often invited to speak to hunting and anti-hunting organizations who want a balanced view of the issues. If you’d like to invite Bob to speak at your group about venison donations, outdoor survival or how to organize around gun control or pro-hunting issues, please feel free to contact him at rmpeck@yahoo.com

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • February 4th, 2019

Step Aside Boys!

Women have become a big part of the shooting sports arena. Competition shooters and those out just for the challenge finds more women at the sporting clay ranges. Photo courtesy of DGIF.

In the past decade, the number of women owning firearms, participating in target shooting, and hunting has rapidly increased. Hunting is no longer a “man’s sport”, but instead, a sport that can be enjoyed by women and children, too. Even though it’s been almost 100 years since women faced the battle for equality, in the woods today, we are not always equal. For many, the woods are still seen as a place for men.

I have been taking part in this sport for almost ten years. Some of my favorite memories are of whitetail hunting with my grandfather and duck hunting with my father. The only other woman hunter in my family was my grandmother, and for many years, I used her rifle for good luck. I have heard stories about her outshooting men at turkey shoots, and killing the big buck the rest of the guys missed as it ran down the line. The stories of my grandmother inspired me to carry on the tradition.

Serious women deer hunters are not to be outdone by their male counterpart. Over the past ten years, more women are entering their trophy bucks in the Virginia Deer Classic, and the trend continues to grow. Photo courtesy of DGIF.

As I have gotten older, I have encountered more and more women hunters. Television hunting shows are not just about men anymore, but, instead, men and their wives hunting as a team. It has become more common to see women and children on hunting shows than ever before. There are clothing lines now geared specifically for women. More programs and classes are being offered for women to learn how to shoot bows, rifles, and handguns. Programs like Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW), NRA Women, and the NWTF’s Women in the Outdoors, are just a few of the many programs offered to encourage female participation in the woods. We are being drawn into the sport.

“The only other woman hunter in my family was my grandmother, and for many years, I used her rifle for good luck.”

People of an older generation view women as people that belong at home taking care of the family. It goes without saying that many people of my generation don’t necessarily agree with women hunting, either. I remember when I was a little younger and my peers would ask, “Why do you hunt?” or, “How can you just go out and shoot something?” My response has been the same my entire life. It’s not about killing. My grandfather and I have had a special bond since I was a child. I took up duck hunting about three years ago because my father thoroughly enjoys it. Now it is something we can enjoy together.

Here are some statistics that show the sharp rise in female hunters over the last decade. In 2001, there were about 1.8 million women hunting in the United States. The amount of women hunters increased 85% by 2013, weighing in at 3.3 million. As of 2013, 19% of women were hunters versus 11% of men, proving that the growth rate of female hunters has outpaced that of men.

Lacey Sullivan took this beautiful 8 point management buck while hunting with her club in Amelia County Virginia. Lacey is an avid deer and waterfowl hunter. More and more women have become a big part of the hunting community and the tendency continues to expand. Photo by Denny Quaiff.

To accompany the rise in female hunters, a sharp increase in women owning and shooting guns has also taken place. In 2013, the amount of women target shooting increased by 60% since 2001, weighing in at 5.4 million. Seventy-three percent of firearm retailers reported that women were buying guns more frequently than men in 2013. Women are signing up for shooting courses, buying guns, and spending time at the range at least once a month. The three most popular firearms purchased by women are semi-automatic pistols, revolvers, and shotguns.

“I remember when I was a little younger and my peers would ask, “Why do you hunt?” or, “How can you just go out and shoot something?” My response has been the same my entire life. It’s not about killing.”

We all know about the negative impact social media can have on hunters around the world. I speak from personal experience when I say it’s very hard to handle. Women receive criticism from the world on social media a little more than men do in general, but add in a pretty girl wearing camouflage, holding a big buck, and it sparks an entirely different debate. Melissa Bachman from the Sportman Channel’s “Winchester Deadly Passion”, received countless hate-filled emails, messages, and tweets after posting a photo of a lion she killed in Africa in 2013. She was even removed from a television show’s cast on National Geographic, because of the uprising of anti-hunting that took place.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing several of my peers to the outdoor experience. As a woman who has been hunting since childhood, I encourage everyone to take a woman or child hunting. It is often said that the youth is the next generation of hunting, but women are playing just as important a role.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lacey Sullivan is a staff writer for Whitetail Times, the official publication of the Virginia Deer Hunters Association. In addition to feature articles, Lacey writes a regular youth column in each issue of the magazine as part of the association’s outreach program for our next generation of hunters. Readers can email Lacey at laceyysull@gmail.com with questions and comments!

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • January 3rd, 2019

Fulfilling Your Late Season Objectives

Archer Merritt, bowhunting over a Bedford County field, takes advantage of a warming afternoon sunshine; a great late season stand site!

Virginia deer hunters afield in December and early January typically have one of three objectives: manage their local deer herd, kill a doe for the freezer, or kill a trophy buck. Here’s some advice on how sportsmen can end their season and feel good about what they have accomplished.

Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, weighs in on the deer management aspect.

“There are two optimum times to take a snapshot of a deer herd: August/September (just before deer season) and January/February (after deer season or at the end of deer season),” he says. “For example, we have conducted pre- and post-season spotlight counts on the Radford Arsenal property annually for nearly 20 years to monitor deer population trends.

“Most deer hunters emphasize the late summer/early fall period because they can look at and get an idea of the number of and quality of antlered bucks on their hunting property by using trail cameras. This makes perfect sense from a deer hunting perspective; but from a deer biology and management perspective, the second time frame is just as important, or more important, in managing deer numbers/density.

“Also during the deer season, deer are in a state of flux due to the breeding season and hunting pressure. I have always felt I get a better picture of the antlerless deer population on a property in the late season when the deer woods and deer behavior are returning to normal.”

Although Knox feels that the late season is the best time to gain an accurate overview of the status of a property’s local herd, it is obviously not the time when most whitetails are harvested as few hunters are afield then and fewer deer are killed as well. Nevertheless, state sportsmen and landowners should take into account whether killing a few more does from a property during the late season will benefit the local herd or not – again depending on management objectives.

“The number of antlerless deer left on the landscape in winter should/will have a significant impact on the number of deer next fall,” says Matt. “This is a central tenet of our deer management program. The text below is taken from the first objective under ‘Populations’ in our Deer Management Plan.”

Deer management in Virginia is predicated on the fact that herd density and health are best controlled by regulating antlerless deer harvest levels. Management objectives are accomplished by increasing or decreasing the number of either-sex deer hunting days during the general firearms season and muzzleloader seasons.

Down a Doe for the Freezer

David Merritt operates Spring Lake Archery Park, as well as a pro shop (Spring Lake Archery Supply) in Moneta, Virginia. David is also one of the most knowledgeable bowhunters I’ve ever met. He weighs in on late season strategies.

“Whether someone is looking for a buck or a doe, deer movement revolves around food then,” he says, “I think there are four major food sources bowhunters, or any hunter, should be aware of now: chestnut oak acorns, honeysuckle, clover, and various grasses in fields.”

“One of the best strategies to take a late season doe is to find a south facing slope with honeysuckle growing on it.”

Perhaps because they have a high tannic acid content, chestnut oak acorns often are among the last nuts for wildlife to consume. They are also the largest acorns in Virginia, so deer are among the few creatures that eat them. In any event, I agree with Merritt about their potential as a late season food source.

A late season snow is a great time to take advantage of more visible tracks.

“Honeysuckle is a huge deal as a late season food source,” continues David. “One of the best strategies to take a late season doe is to find a south facing slope with honeysuckle growing on it. The deer will eat both the stems and leaves, and, what’s more, they can bed in that same area because of how thick honeysuckle can grow.

“A clover-based food plot can also be a great place to set up. White clover is always a draw, but I think food plots with red clover are better. It just seems that the crimson varieties remain vibrant a little while longer into the winter.”
Last, continues the Bedford County sportsman, hunters should look for agricultural or field areas – but not just any such area.

“An opening that receives full sun is going to have grasses that are greener and more appealing to deer,” he says. “Clover, wheat, rye, or just about any kind of grass can be a food source there.”

David’s 17-year-old son Archer is also an accomplished bowhunter. In fact, the young man was 12-years old when he won his first national title, and in 2014, came within one point of making the US Team in the first FITA Tournament that he ever competed in. Matthews and Black Eagle Arrows are among the companies that sponsor him. Archer relates that locating funnels are a major part of his late season strategy.

“For mid-December to early January hunting, a creek crossing is a fantastic funnel,” he says, “One side will likely be undercut and relatively flat, and the other end of the crossing might have a little rise, but still be flatter than the rest of the bank in the area. If you find well-worn trails and droppings in that type of place, set up there for sure.

“Also quite good are what I call manmade funnels. They might be a fencerow or a small, narrow woodlot that a farmer has left standing between two agricultural fields or cow pastures, for example. If the woodlot is between two pastures, the deer will follow the same trails that the cows do.”

Archer lists gullies as another major late season funnel.

“Especially in Virginia’s mountains and rolling hills country, gullies are a big deal,” he says. “Deer don’t like to walk uphill any more than we do, so they’ll use gullies as travel ways. The best stand site will be where the gully sort of fizzles out and meets some other kind of habitat.

“The major challenge for hunting any of these funnels is to set up without spooking the deer. The deer have just been through the pressure of the muzzleloader and gun seasons. If we bump them out of these areas now, we won’t likely get a second chance.”

For more information on the Merritt’s archery park and shop: splafarm@aol.com. They also offer a tracking dog service with their Plott hound.

Take a Buck Now

Kevin McLaughlin, owner of Tactical Operations Incorporated (540-354-9316) in Botetourt County, offers these tips on how to kill a quality late season buck.

“Maybe because of the cold, deer movement is poor early in the morning during the late season. But I have witnessed mid-day movement, especially around 2:00, and the last hour before sunset can be great – it’s usually the warmest part of the day.”

“My best advice would be to take a stand by noon and remain there until dark,” he says. “Maybe because of the cold, deer movement is poor early in the morning during the late season. But I have witnessed mid-day movement, especially around 2:00, and the last hour before sunset can be great – it’s usually the warmest part of the day.

“Of course, if a doe in estrous is about (almost always, these are doe fawns that have come into heat for the first time) then that could change everything in terms of buck movement. But from my experience, it is very uncommon to see bucks chasing does now. The best bet is to concentrate on food sources.”

For buck hunting, Kevin says two stand sites stand out. One is an oak grove that is between a bedding area and an opening of some sort. If acorns remain on the ground, this type of locale can be golden; if acorns are absent, then, of course, a stand site here will be futile.

“One late season, I found one lone oak that apparently had dropped its acorns quite late,” says McLaughlin. “The last half hour of the day, the bucks would start filtering in to that tree.”

Another late season buck hot spot is a field, but Kevin emphasizes that often the last 15 or so minutes of shooting light will be the only time he might glimpse a shooter. Killing a buck during the late season is a real challenge the gunsmith emphasizes. Finally, he relates that playing the wind is just as crucial now as it is any other time during the season. Bucks are just as unforgiving about hunters committing wind-related snafus now as they are any other time.

Late season deer success should always be a cause for celebration and a great time to get venison for the freezer.

Gearing Up for the Late Season

Of course, VDHA members know about the importance of wearing layers of polypropylene or wool under their camo now, but here are some other gear items that may be worth considering. For example, during the late season I have long been fearful of hunting from a tree stand here in the mountains of western Virginia. A cold, icy rain or snow could make it hazardous to climb up or down from a stand, and being aloft for long hours often make it difficult for my cold, numbed arms to draw back a bow.

The solution was so obvious that I am embarrassed it took years for me to think of it – use a ground blind. Several years ago for under $70.00, I purchased an Ameristep Doghouse blind. Light, easy to carry and set up, and offering protection from the wind, the Doghouse helps me stay in the woods longer, www.ameristep.com, 800-847-8269.
Last winter, ThermaCELL came out with hand warmers and pocket warmers that last up to six hours per charge and, in my opinion, allow for more effective warming than those chemical packs that have to be exposed to the air. A feature I really like is that these items can be recharged in a short time and have three different heat levels, www.heat.thermacell.com,

Kevin McLaughlin relates that one of his favorite late season items is a Butler Creek Flip Open Scope Cover for his smokepole. Silent spring hinges and a water-tight fit make this an essential part of Kevin’s hunting when rain or snow are falling, www.butlercreek.com, 800-423-3537.

Although annually I typically struggle to kill a deer during the late season, I really enjoy going afield now. The cold, often snowy surroundings, the lack of hunting pressure, and the challenge of tagging a buck or a doe are all special experiences. I look forward to the late muzzleloader and bow seasons every year.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • December 3rd, 2018

A Day in the Life of a Conservation Police Officer

For those of us who have grown up exposed to the outdoors, whether it be through hunting, fishing, trapping or boating, at some point we either heard about the game warden or have had an encounter with a game warden. Game wardens, now called conservation police officers (CPOs), are often thought of as mystical characters that are behind a tree or bush near where you are hunting or fishing and are ready to nab you if you break a hunting or fishing law. Have you ever had that funny feeling that someone was watching you, or you’ve turned your head and been slightly startled to see a CPO standing behind you observing you hunting or fishing?

It is this level of mysteriousness about CPOs that helps to nudge some would-be violators away from breaking the law and keeps the other honest outdoor enthusiasts honest. We all know that a CPO can’t be behind every tree, but when they start their day, how do they end up being in places that perpetuate this notion?

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) law enforcement division is comprised of 184 CPOs, a communications center that is staffed with dispatchers 24/7/365, and a records section that maintains and analyzes all the reports and paperwork generated by the CPOs. With Virginia’s 8.5 million people in 95 counties, 38 independent cities, and 191 towns within its 42,775 square miles, it does not take long to realize that seeing or encountering one of those 184 CPOs is a rarity.

A CPO’s duties vary from day to day, month to month and season to season. Not unlike other police officers, CPOs receive many calls from their dispatchers in the VDGIF’s communications center. When they receive these calls, they have a duty and responsibility to respond to them. CPOs also receive information directly from the public and from informants that they have developed relationships with in their counties. With advances in technology, CPOs are now getting text messages and videos sent directly to their phones, which has been effective. There is nothing like someone videoing with their cell phone someone standing in the middle of the road shooting at a deer – this makes for a quick investigation and an even quicker guilty verdict in court. Due to all the methods of information coming to a CPO, it would be easy to imagine how the best plan for a work day can be changed through a call from dispatch or a notification on a phone. Regardless, let’s look at how a CPO typically looks at their work day.

CPO’s check hunters on public and private land statewide. The officers get calls from hunters and the general public, with issues of concern at any hour of the day or night.

As stated earlier, the season affects the planning of a CPO’s work. It is important to note that CPOs do not work 9-5. They work the eight or more hours a day that they need to address the activity that is happening for that time of the year and to properly document their work through required forms and reports. Yes, paperwork is an extremely important part of the CPO’s duties. In the heat of the summer, they may work a split shift, so they can meet with farmers to issue kill permits for crop damage during the day, and then come back out in the evening checking anglers and boaters who are seeking cooler temperatures after their workday. In the fall and winter, a CPO may come out early in the morning to check hunters, then go home to be with their families, and then come back out mid-afternoon and work until after dark checking hunters and working a spotlighting patrol. Of course, Saturdays and holidays are usually so filled with activity, CPOs work very long, continuous hours. With deer season right around the corner, let’s look at an opening day of deer season for a CPO.

“The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) law enforcement division is comprised of 184 CPO’s, a communications center that is staffed with dispatchers 24/7/365, and a records section that maintains and analyzes all the reports and paperwork generated by the CPOs.”

It is 3:30 a.m. and the alarm goes off, the CPO quietly puts on his uniform and leaves without disturbing his family. The CPO stops by the local convenience store to grab a cup of coffee and heads before daylight to the agricultural field that is traditionally used by hunters on opening day. This field is on a popular route to public hunting land and is frequented by deer eating up the remaining soybean litter from this fall’s harvest. Stopping at the store serves a couple of purposes, coffee and being seen. The clerk will be sure to tell the early morning hunters that the CPO stopped in. This puts the CPO in their thoughts – they will be sure to check to see that they have their licenses with them and will be less likely to violate a hunting or property law.

There is much traffic by the field as hunters are heading to their favorite hunting locations, but no shining or shooting on this opening morning. As light is breaking on the horizon, the officer heads to a property where an informant reported bait scattered in front of a ground blind. As the CPO gets within two miles of the baited property, he gets a call from dispatch about a landowner with a trespasser on his property. The CPO gets the address and heads in that direction – the baited blind will have to be checked later. The trespass call is on the other side of the county and it takes the CPO 45 minutes to get there. Upon arrival the CPO is met by the landowner who is visibly upset, and he provides the CPO with a description and a vehicle license plate number. The CPO returns to his vehicle and runs the tag through the mobile computer. The plate belongs to someone from out of town. The CPO types in notes about the complaint and will keep an eye out for the vehicle. He will have to follow-up when the trespasser returns home.

Being on the other side of the county, the CPO heads to a property where a local resident reported a group from out-of-state may show up and hunt due to the recent sale of the property. The CPO arrives at the property and there are several vehicles parked at the gate with out of state tags. The CPO checks the vehicle registration information on the vehicles and then checks that information against the information in the GoOutdoors license system. There are no matches, so the CPO puts on his blaze orange cap and walks the road into the property. One hundred yards in and the CPO encounters an individual in a treestand with a rifle, not wearing blaze orange. The officer asks them to climb down to speak with them. It turns out that there are four hunters on the property and all are from out-of-state, with no hunting licenses and no blaze orange. A friend of theirs had purchased the property and told them they could hunt it. Summonses are written, and the officer provides them the information needed so they can purchase their licenses and blaze orange, so they can hunt later in the day – legally.

“A CPO’s duties vary from day to day, month to month and season to season. Not unlike other police officers, CPOs receive many calls from their dispatchers in the VDGIF’s communication center.”

When the CPO gets back in his patrol vehicle, he notices two pending calls in his county – a report of trespassing and someone with questions about hunting seasons and laws. The CPO heads to the trespassing call and on the way calls and talks to the other party to answer their questions. On the way to the trespass call, the officer sees a truck that matches the description of the vehicle that was trespassing earlier in the morning. The CPO stops the truck and speaks to the occupants about the trespassing call. They admit to being on the property and are cooperative. The CPO gets their information and will have to secure warrants later. They are sent on their way with the understanding that the CPO will be back in touch.

Technology has come a long way for conservation officers today. Vehicles equipped with computers enable the CPO to finalize reports, enter notes of the day’s activities, and send and receive emails from dispatch. The computer keeps the officer in close contact while on duty.

The CPO resumes the response to the trespass call and upon arrival he is notified that the landowner has made peace with the trespassers and does not want any enforcement action taken. The CPO clears the call and heads to the public land to check hunters as they are returning to the woods from their lunch breaks. Lunch?

The CPO contacts several hunters, checks their licenses and hears some great hunting stories from that morning. The CPO heads toward a store to grab something to eat and then tries to reach the baited blind to see if it is being hunted. As the CPO is leaving the store he is notified by dispatch that a hunter has fallen from a treestand and is seriously injured. The CPO requests assistance from a neighboring CPO and their sergeant and responds to the property where the fall occurred. The CPO stops to get his ATV to assist medical personnel in reaching the victim in a remote portion of the property. The CPO arrives, and the victim is successfully removed from the location and put in a waiting ambulance. The CPO can get some preliminary information from the victim but will have to follow-up at the hospital. The other CPOs arrive on scene and work together to get all the information needed to prepare the necessary reports. It turns out that the victim was trespassing about 200 yards from property where he had permission to be. All officers clear the scene and arrangements are made to visit the victim in the hospital the following morning to discuss the fall and the trespass violation. And then there’s the paperwork – the CPO will have to compile the witness statements, complete the hunting incident report, complete a written complaint to provide the magistrate for the trespass violation, complete notes for court and for the call for service – most of this will have to wait until tomorrow after they leave the hospital.

CPOs work big game check stations during the hunting season. Hunters have been checking their deer, bear and turkey harvests at check stations throughout the state since 1947.

It is getting close to the end of legal shooting hours and the CPO makes it to the property where the baited blind is located. There is a truck parked at the gate, so there is a good chance the blind is being hunted. The CPO puts on their blaze orange cap and eases up the path leading to the blind. BOOM! A shot goes off and startles the CPO. It is in the direction of the blind. The CPO eases a little closer to see someone exiting the blind and going to look at a deer in front of the blind. The CPO, keeping his safety in mind, takes a position behind a large oak tree where he can see the hunter. The hunter drags the deer past the tree where the CPO is standing. The CPO quietly follows the hunter back down the path for a few yards and when he knows he is in a safe position of advantage, he announces himself to the unsuspecting hunter. The startled hunter begins to tell the CPO that the deer was killed on another part of the property, but when the CPO recounts the hunter’s actions, the hunter knows he has been caught. The CPO and hunter make it back to their vehicles and the CPO issues a summons to the hunter. The hunter will tell his friends and acquaintances about the CPO that mysteriously appeared behind him after he illegally killed a deer and will further the legends of CPOs being behind every tree.

It is well after dark and with no pending calls, the CPO heads home from a very eventful opening day. The CPO pulls into his driveway and boots up his mobile computer. He completes incident reports for the summonses issued to the out-of-staters and for the baited blind. He enters notes into the computer aided dispatch system for the calls for service that were responded to. The CPO shuts down the computer and notifies dispatch by radio that he is finally off duty.

Our CPOs duties and responsibilities are so vast, that no two days are ever alike. No two opening days of any season and no two days between seasons. Our CPOs must be adaptive, creative and resourceful to be successful in not only answering all of their calls and completing all of their investigations, but to go home safely every day. Our CPOs appreciate your support, the support of the VDHA, and the support from the communities they serve.

Editor’s note: Major Scott Naff is the Assistant Chief of Law Enforcement Operations, overseeing the operations of 184 sworn officers across the Commonwealth. He is a native of Radford, Virginia, and an avid hunter, trapper and angler. Major Naff earned a master’s degree in Executive Leadership from Liberty University and a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Radford University. While in college, he worked for Claytor Lake State Park and for the VDGIF as a Wildlife Worker. He began his career as a Conservation Police Officer in 1994 and served in the ranks of Area Leader, Sergeant, Academy Director, and Lieutenant before promoted to the rank of Major in 2016.

  • November 26th, 2018

Working For Wildlife

Over the past 35 plus years, I have been  directly  and  indirectly involved in building,  planting and maintaining food plots for wildlife. I have witnessed more and more hunters and landowners filling the gap of lost habitat by building and working food plots for the wildlife on their property.

The term was coined by U.S. hunting and outdoor industries. Food plots generally consist of, but are not limited to, legumes (clovers, alfalfa, beans, oats, etc.) or forage grasses. The following is our personal list of wildlife management practices we have learned through trial and error.

Have the Right Equipment for the Job

For this section we will be discussing the different types of equipment needed for starting a new plot and maintaining an established plot.

Preparing a New Site – When starting a new plot, break the ground with a heavy-duty disk. After breaking ground, spread the recommended amount of fertilizer and lime. Take the time to get a soil test before spreading your fertilizer and lime. This will save you a lot of money in the long run. We then follow the ground breaking with an 8’ rotating tiller that pulls behind the tractor and connects to the power take-off. If the plot was planted last year the rotating tiller will most likely be your best choice for reworking the site. If it’s a new site, the tiller will get the ground in the best shape you could hope for.

Now that you have cultivated the soil it’s time to sow your seed. Our club purchased a 300 pound broadcast spreader several years ago. This spreader can be pulled with the tractor or behind an ATV. It saves a lot of walking the field using a hand spreader.

Our next step is to run a cultipacker over the site. Most seed manufacturers highly recommend this process that rolls the seed into the ground. It firms the seed bed giving  good seed to soil contact for better germination.

Maintaining an Established Site – The most important thing that an established food plot needs is mowing. We try to mow our plots for the first time in the spring by May 15. Follow the first mowing with a top dressing of fertilizer. If the site has clover and chicory planted, the clover will make its own nitrogen. Heavy applications of nitrogen will burn the clover. A good rule of thumb is 200 to 300 pounds of 0-20-20 to the acre that will strengthen your plot’s root system.

The biggest challenge for maintaining food plots is controlling the weeds and unwanted grasses. I cannot over emphasize how important it is to have a regular mowing schedule. We try to mow all of our sites every 30 days to six weeks, depending on the rainfall. Another thing we recommend is to spray the site with a herbicide called Poast. The best results we have achieved are from spraying this a week to 10 days after mowing. This will give the weeds time to grow above the forage plants and help the herbicide make better contact with the weeds.

Our hunt club has been renting a grain drill for our Labor Day weekend fall planting from the County Extension Agent for years.

This has been one of the best things we have ever done for food plot maintenance. The 8’ machine has three hoppers that allow us to plant clover, chicory and oats at the precise depth prescribed by the manufacturer all at the same time. We can drill 18 to 20 acres of seed in 8 to 10 hours. The no-till grain drill is the way to go!

Maintaining perennial food plots on our property has proven to be an asset. This ongoing effort has paid off and greatly enhances our Quality Deer Management Program.

Quality Seed is a Key to Successful Plots

If you take your deer management seriously you need to target their year-round health. If you are trying to grow big bucks with impressive antlers, and healthy does for good fawn recruitment, a loss of nutrition could decrease the potential.

The two basic types of food plots for whitetails are warm season and cool season plots. For this article we will discuss both.

We plant our food plots on Labor Day weekend each year. Fall planting has been more successful for us than spring planting. With cooler days and nights in the fall less rain is needed. Also, the facts are that winter precipitation is far more foreseeable than in the late spring and summer months.

After years of trying different seeds for food plots, we have learned that a mix of clover, chicory and winter oats is a great choice for spring, summer, fall and winter food plots. This forage mixture will create a smorgasbord of food to the deer’s liking and keep them coming back.

Clover – Deer need food high in protein and minerals during the spring and summer, with more carbohydrates in the late fall and winter.

It goes without saying; the best clover to plant is one that will grow where you hunt with the highest protein levels. This would normally be white clover, which has protein levels that approach that of alfalfa. Alfalfa is a great deer food, but my experience with trying to establish an alfalfa plot has not been good. My advice would be to stick with the clover. It’s hard to beat.

Chicory – When working food plots, always look for user-friendly plants that are easily maintained. Chicory fits the bill and runs a close second to clover as a high protein, high mineral food source. It is very important to have plants that withdraw minerals from the soil.

Soy Beans and Chicory are both high protein plants and preferred by whitetails. However, we found that Soy Beans will die if eaten when they first start to come up, which makes it all but impossible to grow on food plot sites.

Chicory is one of the best food plot plants that we have found. Whitetails primarily browse Chicory in the spring and summer. However, I have personally shot deer in early December that were eating Chicory when I pulled the trigger.

Oats – If you’re looking for a cool season, cereal grain for food plots that will attract deer during hunting season, Oats would be a great choice. During the first months of growth, Oats are very high in protein. We have found that the deer on our property prefer Oats over other cereal grains, such as Wheat.

When planting Oats you need to make sure that seed is covered with 1 to 2 inches of soil for proper germination. For your best results, plant in well drained soils with pH between 6 and 7. The recommended amount of Oat is 100 pounds to the acre. Oats do extremely well when planted as a cover crop with clover, that makes its own nitrogen, which jump-starts the Oats for the cold winter months to follow.


As wildlife habitat continues to shrink throughout the Old Dominion, there is more of a demand for hunters, hunt clubs and landowners to make an honest commitment to supplement the habitat. In order to maintain quality wildlife resources, high energy foods must be abundant throughout the year.

Take time and energy to become a true steward of the land. Talk with the people at your local feed and seed co-op about planting in your area. For more technical questions consult a wildlife biologist or the county extension agent in your county. If your goal is to have bigger and healthier deer, it’s time to get involved.

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • September 29th, 2018