Where have the deer gone?

deer in snow_dan_stefanich

Throughout the Midwest, reports indicate that deer herd numbers are extremely low. Illinois deer hunters need to be ready for possible changes in the seasons and quotas. photo by Dan Stefanich.

Reduced deer harvest reports throughout the Midwest have sent a shockwave of concern through the deer hunting community. With our firearm harvest down roughly 20,000 from last year, Illinois is not alone. Our neighboring states are also reporting decreased harvest totals.  Missouri hunters took 157,273 deer — down 23% from last year. Wisconsin hunters took 226,582 deer— also down by almost 20,000 from the previous year. And Iowa’s gun season harvest was down 18% from the previous year.

So what happened? 
There is a lot of speculation as to why the numbers are so low. Bad weather including freezing rain, cold and snow may have kept a lot of hunters home or at least spending less time in the field. EHD or blue-tongue disease is also a factor, but no one knows for sure to what extent that had on the herd due to the unreliability of confirmed deer deaths. An increase in predators like mountain lions and coyotes can also be a factor. The theories vary from hunter to hunter. Personally, my son and I both had one the best deer seasons in the past five years. I passed up 17 bucks and ended up shooting a 150-class nine-pointer.  But many hunters I've talked to claim they have seen a lot fewer deer than in past years. The fact that deer-car collisions is also at an all-time low is also troublesome. Speculation from hunters is one thing, but the data can’t be discounted. NOW we may have a problem.

Another factor that nobody wants to talk about is the individual deer “management” programs implemented by some County agencies. For example the Will County Forest Preserve District continues to execute a deer-culling program with "volunteer" sharpshooters. Instead of opening up these supposedly overpopulated preserves to bowhunting, they enable volunteers to shoot deer at night over baited piles, in hopes of harvesting deer to reduce the herd in those areas. Although the Illinois Department of Natural Resources authorizes the quota, The Forest Preserve and Will County Sherriff's Department oversee and manage this initiative, NOT the Illinois DNR. Which leads me to believe that if this is taking place in other counties, this is yet another factor to consider for the diminished herd.

Are changes in deer seasons coming?
The IDNR is planning to review all of the data before making any decisions for the future of the management of the Illinois deer herd. The reality is that the responsibility of keeping a deer herd as sustainable levels is extremely challenging. Hunting is a tool utilized by the DNR to help keep the herd in balance with its carrying capacity — that is the ability for the environment to sustain a healthy herd. In 2013, the IDNR conducted a series of public forums as well as an online survey to give Illinois deer hunters the chance to voice their opinion. With over 7,000 respondents to the surveys, the DNR recently posted those results on their website. The results are interesting and can interpreted many ways. 96% of the respondents were hunters and indicated they thought the deer population was low, however 87% wanted harvest levels to stay the same, or increase. Interesting.

Although we hunters feel it is our right, it's actually a privilege. Do we take our current system, which is extremely liberal, for granted? Maybe. Having enjoyed the privilege of drawing numerous permits, as well as purchasing permits over-the-counter, we need to consider what sacrifices we are willing to live with in order to have the chance to hunt deer at all. When I started hunting with my father in the late 70's, we crossed our fingers hoping to get drawn for ONE firearm deer permit through the state lottery system.  There were years when some of our family members did not even draw a firearm deer permit, having to sit the gun season out. Can you imagine that today? The main reason that archery permits are sold over-the-counter is that the success rate is low compared to firearm hunting, so the impact on the total harvest is much lower.

What can we do?
The bottom line is, hunters need to have a little faith in our DNR managers and biologists, yet still voice our opinions. I am hopeful that the state will continue to maintain a healthy and huntable deer population. But if we want to continue to hunt deer in Illinois, we hunters need to be willing to give up a little bit. If this means a decrease in the number of permits or seasons then that's cool with me.

Here a few other suggestions for the DNR to consider:
-    open a bounty on coyotes now, to hopefully reduce the fawn mortality rate this spring
-    remove all late season antlerless only seasons for 2014-15 or
-    close bowhunting on Jan 1., 2015, reducing stress on the deer as they struggle to survive the winter

But I’m not making the decisions, only offering ideas. Ultimately, the IDNR plans to review all of the data, and consider all possible scenarios before making any decisions on changes to the hunting regulations and seasons.  I’ll keep you posted.

Results from the surveys and public forums can be accessed on my website at www.danstefoutdoors.com.

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