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The regulations governing hunting and fishing seasons, bag limits, and related matters have undergone many changes since West Virginia’s first game laws were passed in 1869.

Those first laws made it illegal to kill game between February 14 and September 15, and certain species of birds at any time. The penalty for a violation was not less than $5, nor more than $10, plus costs, and the violator could be imprisoned in default of fine for no more than 10 days. A novel provision in the 1869 act was that half the fine was to go to the person who informed on the violator, an incentive that did not prove popular with the public and eventually was discarded. The other half was to go to the general school fund; today, all hunting and fishing fines go into the school fund. In any case, there was no means of enforcement, and the first laws had little impact.

In 1882, three additional statutes were enacted that still remain in force in one form or another. One prohibited the hunting, chasing, or wounding of deer between January 15 and September 1. This law was a historic first step in restoring the deer population in the state. Another 1882 statute prohibited hunting on enclosed lands without permission, and the third made it unlawful to catch and destroy fish by means of any device other than hook and line.

The 1897 legislature brought enforcement of game laws by passing legislation that provided for the appointment of a state game and fish warden. His salary came from fines collected from violators. The first hunting licenses came in 1899 when non-residents were required to buy a license, which was good only in the county that issued the license.

The first significant statute of the 20th century came in 1901, when the legislature decreed that the state game and fish warden’s salary would be paid from the state treasury, and, more importantly, that he could appoint deputy wardens. They became the forerunners of today’s conservation officers. A prohibition on Sunday hunting, passed in 1909, was largely repealed by the legislature in 2001, but voters in a majority of counties reinstated the prohibition in ballot referendums. The same 1909 act prohibited fishing on Sunday, but this was later overturned.

The forerunner of today’s Natural Resources Commission came on the scene in 1921 with the creation of a game and fish commission composed of three citizens appointed by the governor. Of more far-reaching impact, the same legislative session produced a law requiring that everyone above the age of 15 must have a license to hunt and fish, which is still the law today. The commission, which has had seven members since 1961, advises the Division of Natural Resources and the governor on conservation matters and approves or rejects hunting and fishing regulations.

A significant step was taken in 1933, with the creation of the Conservation Commission, the forerunner of the Division of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR was created by the 1961 legislature with sweeping changes that formed the agency as it is presently constituted. The same act upgraded the DNR’s law enforcement section, which in 2022 had 117 officers.

This Article was written by Skip Johnson

Last Revised on July 18, 2023


Slone, Frank B. History of Conservation Law Enforcement. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, revised by Charles Costilow, 1974

Cite This Article

Johnson, Skip "Game Laws." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 July 2023. Web. 24 July 2024.


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