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Bill Cochran: Wildlife agency celebrates 100 years of success

Bill Cochran: Wildlife agency celebrates 100 years of success

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The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, succinctly called the Game Commission by many old timers, is celebrating its 100th year this month.

For the most part, it is a huge success story, carried on the shoulders of hunters and fishermen, the original wildlife conservationists.

Some might think the woods and fields were full of deer, turkey and bear when the Virginia Genera Assembly established the agency March 11, 1916, effective June of that year. That wasn’t the case. Forests were being cut away and burned, hillsides were eroding, waterways were polluted and poaching was commonplace by people who cared little about fair chase or the future.

Support for the agency came from the League of American Sportsmen, the Audubon Society and the Farmers Institute — along with individual outdoorsmen.

While the establishment of the new agency was billed as the most “radical event in the history of conservation in Virginia,” it hardly was a pressing issue in the minds of many, especially with war raging in Europe. Its headquarters was a cloakroom in the Capitol. The state provided no financial support, which is pretty much the case 100 years later.

The first order of business was to get a handle on poaching. That meant employing game wardens, and paying them with fees collected from the state’s first hunting license. The initial year, license revenue reached nearly $92,000, far more than the most optimistic advocates had anticipated. A county license cost $1, a state license, $3 and a nonresident license, $10. Resident fishing licenses wouldn’t come along until 1928, and their revenue would be used to enhance angling opportunities.

The warden force, armed with a bevy of new laws, including one that required written permission to hunt on private land, had an immediate impact. Illegal hunting declined and wildlife numbers increased.

To help wildlife along the road to recovery, restocking was carried out, protective regulations were passed and habitat was provided. Heading the effort was M.D. “Mac” Hart, the agency’s first secretary, who has received far too little recognition for his brilliant leadership.

Sure, mistakes were made. Resources were wasted on game farms, where ring-neck pheasants and turkeys were raised for release into the wild. The initial year, some 4,000 pheasant eggs were distributed to people willing to hatch them under chicken hens, then liberate them. The pheasants couldn’t hack it in the wilds, and the same can be said of farm-raised turkeys.

The turkey population would take off later in a spectacular way when wildlife officials learned how to capture wild birds and relocate them to areas where there were none. In the early 1960s, amid considerable controversy, a spring gobbler season was established. Hunters reported killing a record 20,580 turkeys in the spring of 2015.

One of the major success stories of the agency is the restoration of deer, especially in the western part of the state where the population had pretty well been depleted. Deer were brought in from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Alabama, mostly in the 1930s.

Along with deer for stocking, came restrictive regulations that established a two-week hunting season, bucks-only, one per year. Laws also were passed to protect deer from free-running dogs, which was a huge problem. Sanctuaries were established to provide islands of protection for deer.

In 1930, the reported deer kill was 1,299. The past season it was 209,167.

With the reestablishment of the herd came more liberal hunting regulations. A bowhunting season was set in 1954; a primitive muzzleloading season in 1973, followed by a modern black powder season a short time later, and most recently, crossbow hunting.

Elk were shipped by railroad from Wyoming in the mid-30s and were released in Giles and Bedford counties, where they survived for a few years then disappeared. The department was adamantly opposed to future stockings, then changed its mind and currently has an active and successful management program underway in Buchanan County.

While the restoration of deer, bear, turkey, waterfowl and certain non-game species, including bald eagles, has been a solid success, the same can’t be said of quail. Their numbers have plummeted, but DGIF has a program underway to bring back Bob. Considering its success stories of the past, there is hope.

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