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W.Va. Legislative Interims: WVDNR outlines scope of operation in Wildlife Management Areas, other programs

By Autumn Shelton, WV Press Association

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. – West Virginia Division of Natural Resources oversees 112 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), encompassing 1,485,920 acres located throughout the state, and focuses on habitat and forest management, according to information provided Sunday during the West Virginia Legislature’s November Interim meetings.

Members of the legislative Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization heard presentations on the state’s Wildlife Management Areas program as well as the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program during their Sunday interim meeting held at Cacapon Resort State Park. 

WVDNR Assistant Chief of Game Management Steven Rauch told committee members that there are 112 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), encompassing 1,485,920 acres, located throughout the state. 

“We are responsible for the management and conservation of the state’s wildlife resources and providing wildlife associated recreation,” Rauch said of the WMAs program, adding that access roads, trails, public use facilities, 31 public shooting ranges and more are maintained through the program. 

Their main focus, however, is habitat and forest management. 

Funding for the program primarily comes from state hunting and fishing license sales, the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Act and from non-governmental organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, he noted. 

Upon questioning from Senator Jack David Woodrum, R-Summers, regarding any additional program funding needs that could be provided by the legislature, Chief of the WVDNR Wildlife Resources Section Paul Johansen said that while additional funds are always needed to enhance their work, the program is adequately funded at the moment. 

“Generally speaking, we are in a reasonably good financial situation because we tend to be conservative in how we expend those dollars,” Johansen said. “Our license sales are relatively stable at this point.”

“We are actively engaged in what we call recruitment, retention and reactivation programs that are designed to bring hunters, boaters and anglers back into the license buying public and reactivate those who may have dropped out,” he continued. “With regards to the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration dollars, we have seen a steady increase and a bump in those dollars in a positive direction in recent years. A lot of that has to do with the sale of guns and ammunition.” 

Johansen said that the annual budget for the program is around $35 million. And he noted that the state does not pay revenue to land holding companies (typically timber and coal companies) who enter into license agreements with the program for land management. 

Lastly, in response to a question about WMA gaps in Kanawha, Raleigh and Boone counties, he said that a big announcement will take place early next year regarding a WMA development in the Madison area of Boone County. 

“We are constantly looking for opportunities to provide additional public wildlife associated recreation through our public lands Wildlife Management Areas program,” he said. 

Next, Colleen Sculley from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discussed the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration program.  

She explained that prior to 1937 the nation’s wildlife population was “at an all time low.” 

To remedy this, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, which provided funding to conserve and restore those populations. Later, the companion Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Act of 1952 was passed by Congress to provide funding and restore fisheries throughout the nation. 

Funding for the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act is acquired from the excise tax on nationwide sales of firearms and ammunition, she continued. To date, federal grant funding provided to West Virginia through these acts has totaled $448.32 million. 

She further said that this funding has restored and conserved over 31 bird species, including doves, eagles, herons, hawks and songbirds; 25 mammal species, including elk, bear and deer; and 12 sport fish species, including bass and trout, in the state. 

More than $6 million has been provided for elk restoration in southern West Virginia, Sculley said, adding that elk became absent from the state in 1873, but were reintroduced in 2015. 

“I am sure you are all proud of the elk restoration that has occurred in this state,” she said. “I want to tell you that I travel across this country, and this is the success story we tell.” 

Before any state can receive federal grant funding, they must provide a 25% match, she explained. Additionally, states must make a long-term commitment to ensure that any grant-funded land purchase must “restore, rehabilitate, or improve lands and waters as wildlife habitat, or provide public access for hunting or other wildlife oriented recreation.”

“We understand that states may have requests to use their lands for other purposes, so we have regulations in place that speak to this. It says the state agency may allow commercial, recreational or other secondary uses of a grant-funded parcel of land or water or capital improvement if these uses do not interfere with the authorized purpose of the grant,” Sculley said. “If they interfere, they shouldn’t occur. That’s the bottom-line.” 

When asked if there were any actions that may have jeopardized funding for the state, Sculley responded that, in the past, oil and gas extraction was a typical concern for WMAs and must always be carefully considered. 

“Here in West Virginia, I think it passed audits, but in some areas we have had some challenges we have had to work through and resolve,” Sculley stated. “But, West Virginia runs a pretty tight ship. The audits that we see coming out of West Virginia are pretty darn clean.”