BROADWAY, Va. (AP) — Bob Cramer makes his living as a professional whitetail deer hunting guide in the Midwest. So he knows where to look for deer - and when there aren't any to be found.
This season, for the first time in eight years, he bought a Virginia hunting license and walked into the empty woods behind his Union Springs home.
"It was clear pretty fast that there weren't any deer up there," he said. "I remember a time when you would drive down Tilghman Road and see 15 or 20 deer each time. Now you drive 15 or 20 times before you see a deer."
Timberville native Everett Kline and two friends each hunted alone one day last fall in the George Washington National Forest near Bergton. Covering a total of 21.5 miles, the men spotted one whitetail.
"That's not a scientific sample, but ... that suggests there's not many deer out there," Kline said.
Wherever hunters gathered this season, they asked the same question: Where have all the deer gone?
This season, hunters have harvested about 11 percent fewer deer than in the 2009-10 season, said game department deer biologist Nelson Lafon.
The department has been "watching this trend for about a decade," Lafon says, and has identified several factors that may be affecting herd size. "All these factors interact and it's hard to say if one is more important than the other."
A decline in the number of hunters - whom biologists rely on to provide harvest data - has made it difficult to assess exactly how much the deer population has decreased, Lafon said.
Poor habitat also is a factor. Deer thrive in young forests, while the national forest has primarily older, mature growth, Lafon said.
Liberal bag limits on private land and farms, many of which border the national forest, may have affected the herds, too.
Other factors may be increased predation by black bear and coyotes, last winter's near-record snowfall and an inconsistent mast crop, generally nuts such as acorns and walnuts that deer feed on, according to Lafon.
"There is no (large) research project to isolate all these factors," he said. "We're not trying to make excuses here, but it's not that simple to say it's just the mast crop. It's several different factors coming together."
At Tuesday's game department board meeting in Richmond, biologists "may recommend" changes to hunting regulations, he said.
"This is a very big concern of ours, not only because we want hunters to keep hunting to help manage the size of the herd, but this is a way of life around here and obviously a revenue source for us with licenses and tags," Lafon said. "We are very concerned."
Local hunters wonder if the problems besieging the herds in the national forest have grown beyond the control of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which is mandated to manage them. Robert Coffman of Broadway says that for 30 years agency officials have "been giving us the same story and not doing anything about it."
"I don't see them doing anything at all to help the situation," says Ray Ritchie, who has hunted on local public lands for more than 50 years.
Two recent regulatory changes show that the agency has addressed population concerns, Lafon says.
In 2009, the number of either-sex hunting days was reduced from nine to two. And in 2008, the number of either-sex days on both public and private land west of Va. 613 in western Rockingham County also was reduced, from two weeks to two days.
Broadway's Gene Driver, a member of the Shenandoah Valley Sportsman's Alliance, has advocated the regulation west of Va. 613, but he says the decline has continued.
"We've got to see a more drastic change, and so far that's not happening," he said.
Retired VDGIF trapping specialist Gerald Blank isn't optimistic that the agency will make any aggressive regulatory changes.
"They've let it go so far now that it's not going to be an easy fix. ... I've told them for years they manage for emergency situations," says Blank, who retired in 2003 after 36 years of service. "It's not rocket science to see that there's not deer out there.
"Get out from behind the desk and find out what's going on. They'll want to do a five-year study. Well, a five-year study isn't going to help. Something needs to be done now."
Blank says hunters have been sold "a bill of goods" by the agency that the deer population can rebound from long seasons and liberal bag limits.
Hunters, he said, also must take responsibility and organize to voice their concerns at agency board meetings. The 11-member board reviews biologists' recommendations, hears public comments and votes on regulatory changes.
"That's the only way they're going to listen is if 200 hunters pack that room and someone articulate speaks up to represent them," Blank said. "You can't stand idly by and wait for Joe Blow to take care of this, because that's not going to happen."
"A few" sportsmen have expressed their concerns, says board member Leon Turner, who began representing the 6th Congressional District in October.
The Fincastle resident, who occupied the same seat during two four-year terms from 1985 to 1993, says he is still familiarizing himself with the situation in the western Shenandoah Valley.
That situation is complicated by the fact that two government agencies with sometimes divergent interests are involved in resource management: The U.S. Forest Service manages the habitat, while VDGIF manages the herds.
Although Lafon says poor habitat in the national forest is one reason the whitetail are struggling, he also says VDGIF has no control over habitat management.
"We can only try to encourage them to manage for younger forest. We can recommend and give our biological reasoning, but we really can't do much more."
But hunters say that regardless of habitat concerns, VDGIF still has the power to make aggressive regulatory changes - more conservative bag limits, fewer doe days, antler restrictions, a shorter hunting season or a combination of these strategies - so that the local population can rebound.
Those with long memories are beginning to think the deer will disappear again, as they did around the turn of the 20th century, when hides and meat were valuable. In 1925, a group of residents, using their own land and resources, restocked the mountains with deer from other states.
Coffman hopes it doesn't come to that again. But he's pessimistic.
"It's going to hit bottom and it's going to come down to where there's no deer in those mountains at all, and then I think they might do something about it," he said. "I'd hate to see it come down to that, but I think that's what's going to have to happen."
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