CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wildlife officials say there's a good reason motorists are seeing more road-killed animals this fall.
"There isn't much out there for them to eat," said Randy Tucker, a biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources. "When animals have to travel to find food, they sometimes cross roads. When they cross roads, they sometimes get hit."
A serious shortage of mast -- nuts, fruits and other wildlife foods -- promises to make the road-kill situation worse than it otherwise might be. DNR biologists recently completed their Mast Index Survey, an annual assessment of the state's wild food production. Tucker said this year's mast crop is the worst in the survey's 40-year history.
"There's always some mast out there, and there are always some areas of relative mast abundance," he explained. "But what is out there this year is really spotty. Overall, the food situation is dismal."
In a normal year, shortages in one type of mast would be compensated for by abundances in another. Last year, for example, acorns were relatively scarce but hickory nuts and beechnuts were plentiful. Sassafras and greenbrier were hard to find, but crabapples and hawthorn were present in abundance.
This year, every wildlife food item except dogwood is running below the Mast Survey's long-term average. Beechnuts, for example, are running 46 percent under their long-term average; walnuts, 23 percent; hickory nuts, 22 percent; white oak acorns, 48 percent; chestnut oak acorns, 64 percent; black and red oak acorns, 42 percent; scarlet oak acorns, 32 percent; black cherry, 30 percent; apples, 66 percent; and crabapples, 39 percent.
"Ordinarily, you don't get shortages of hard mast items and soft mast items in the same year," Tucker said. "This year we did. It's kind of a double whammy."
Not even dogwood, the lone mast item that exceeded its long-term average, can be considered abundant. It's up exactly 1 percent from normal.
"The problem with dogwood, too, is that there isn't nearly as much of it as there used to be," Tucker said. "A disease, dogwood anthracnose, has killed off a lot of trees. So even a relative abundance of dogwood isn't exactly good news."
Biologists expect the shortage to have short-term and long-term effects on Mountain State wildlife. Squirrels and other small mammals will suffer on the highways. So, to a lesser extent, should deer and bears. But wildlife officials' main concerns are for what might happen during the upcoming winter and the following spring.
"Wildlife use mast to store up energy reserves for the winter," Tucker explained. "With food so scarce this fall, animals will enter the winter on a lower nutritional plane. First of all, they'll have to expend more energy simply to find the little bit of food that's available. And even when they find it, they won't have as much to eat as they usually do.
"If we have a really hard winter, some animals won't have the energy reserves they need to survive harsh weather conditions. If we get a late freeze or a big snowstorm in March or April, there's a good chance we might get some winterkill, especially among deer."
Tucker also expects the mast shortage to reduce animals' breeding success.
"Ultimately, the condition in which animals come through the winter affects breeding," he said. "Animals that enter the winter on a low nutritional plane are going to have very low reserves when the breeding season comes along the following spring."
Female bears and deer, which become pregnant in the fall and deliver their young in the spring, also stand to suffer from the current food shortage. Malnourished sow bears sometimes reabsorb their fetuses while in hibernation rather than give birth. Doe deer might bear one fawn instead of two.
"A lot of the outlook for deer will depend on how early the trees 'green up' next spring," Tucker said. "Those fawns are getting ready to drop by mid-May. If we don't get an early green-up, it will affect the does' carrying of fawns."
DNR officials generally avoid using the term "mast failure," but Tucker said there's no other way to describe the current situation.
"The grocery store [for wildlife] is pretty empty right now," he said. "It's hard to look at the situation and not call this a mast failure. A winter with really bad weather will only elevate the seriousness of what we're starting to see now."