Deer management a balancing act
THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Task force facts
The task force was created by joint resolution of the Illinois General Assembly. There are 15 members, including representatives of the General Assembly, Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials and constituent groups.
The panel met four times between April and October 2008 and conducted six public meetings around Illinois seeking comment about potential changes to deer-herd management.
Final recommendations include extending some portions of the deer-hunting season, expanding educational outreach and making hunting permits easier to obtain.
Core recommendations include:
1. Permits for the antlerless-only late-winter season should be made available over the counter.
2. Counties open for the late-winter hunt would be categorized into two groups depending on population status.
3. Lengthening the late-winter season from three to nine days.
4. Permits for the regular firearm season that remain allocated after two lottery drawings would be sold over the counter.
5. An extra day would be added to the first segment of the firearm season.
6. Educational outreach efforts would include a new Web site: Living with Illinois Deer. Programs such as the Illinois Sportsmen Against Hunger program would be better promoted, and access to private lands would be sought to increase hunter participation.
7. A task force would review programs designed to reduce damage to crops caused by deer.
Despite a relatively short time frame, recommendations of the Joint Task Force on Deer Herd Management are in the pipeline for implementation by next year’s hunting season.
The recommendations were announced Jan. 7. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is working to move the rules through a complex process that includes two 45-day public comment periods in order to be ready by the time permit applications go out to hunters.
But swift action doesn’t mean the proposed changes lack controversy.
Paul Shelton, forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says the task force faced the formidable challenge of retaining top-notch recreational opportunities for hunters while balancing concerns about deer-vehicle accidents and damage to agricultural crops.
Illinois has about 800,000 deer living among its more than 12 million residents.
The state is well-known for its trophy deer hunting, and hunters who pursue Illinois’ white-tailed deer are especially protective of the resource. Deer hunters are quick to voice concerns about issues ranging from hunter access to the timing and length of seasons.
In recent years, changes to the Illinois deer-hunting landscape have been controversial — especially the multi-year debate over the increase in the number of non-resident hunters allowed to pursue trophy deer.
Shelton says a primary concern of task-force members is reducing the number of accidents between vehicles and deer.
There were 25,006 deer-vehicle crashes reported in 2007, down from 25,490 in 2006. Five fatalities were recorded in 2007, compared to one in 2006.
Cook County had the most accidents with 995. Cook also is the one county where firearm hunting is not allowed — a figure not lost on deer hunters.
“If you were to take the (counties with large urban and high-traffic areas) out of the equations, your deer-vehicle collisions would drop significantly,” says Tim Walmsley of Fowler. Walmsley is a longtime hunter, deer scorer and founder of the Deer and Turkey Classic.
“This (proposed) nine-day gun season — is it going to address that?” he asks. One task-force recommendation seeks to extend the first weekend of the traditional firearm season by an extra day.
The task force used a formula that considered the rate of accidents per miles driven, instead of just taking the number of accidents into account.
“You see that Sangamon County has a high number of deer-vehicle collisions,” says Jerry Beverlin, a member of the task force representing United Bowhunters of Illinois. “But Sangamon County falls off the map when you go by the rate of accidents per billion miles driven. That’s an interesting take.
“Then you’re comparing volume to volume instead,” he says. “That was a really eye-opening chart that showed that kind of information.”
Shelton says standardization of the numbers is more accurate than simply counting the number of cars and deer. Deer population numbers are estimates, and someone always challenges the figure anyway, he says.
“It’s a lot easier to take out the middleman,” Shelton says. “And the number of deer doesn’t necessarily relate to a problem.”
The task force set a goal of reducing accidents to a rate of 207 per billion miles traveled. That compares to a rate of 233 accidents in 2007. The peak year for deer-vehicle accidents was 2003, with 241 accidents per billion miles traveled.
Walmsley sent a detailed e-mail around the state to deer-hunting groups, natural resources officials and the media questioning whether the recommendations actually would reduce the number of accidents and improve the quality of the Illinois deer herd.
At issue is the extension of the first weekend of the firearm deer season and the effectiveness of the late-winter antlerless-only firearm season.
Walmsley says it is unlikely either will help reduce the number of does — key to controlling deer population.
“Bucks don’t have fawns,” Walmsley says.
Beverlin says he thinks the task force took the easiest route by extending seasons again and issuing more permits.
“We didn’t agree with the premise of the committee that there was a rampant overpopulation of deer, but we agreed there were areas of concern with problems due to lack of access or limitations on access,” he says.
Beverlin says the United Bowhunters prefers to work to educate landowners about how providing access for hunters can help control deer populations. He says the state could even leverage funds from the federal Farm Bill to operate a hunting-access program.
“If you’re not encouraging new hunters, (simply issuing more permits) is not going to work,” he says. “I like to put one deer in the freezer — or maybe two — to eat, but I don’t really need any more.
The task force’s final report includes a page on a “potential” hunter-access program, and notes that rules governing federal funds and a state’s eligibility are not yet known.
The task force also recommended increased promotion of the state’s Sportsmen Against Hunger program, which works with hunters and meat processors to provide ground venison to food pantries.
To manage the Illinois deer herd, Walmsley says, he prefers that hunters “earn a buck” by killing a doe first.
“That was the biggest thing they could have done,” he says. “It’s the ultimate scenario.”
Kevin Chapman, legislative liaison for the Illinois Bowhunters Society, says the elimination of check stations has made enforcement of the earn-a-buck concept difficult. Hunters now have to call in information about the deer they kill.
“Since they did away with check stations, there’s no way to do it,” he says. “The first thing people will do is call in a doe. The physical check station was just so important. It’s just an enforcement nightmare.
“Besides, we’re just so diverse from one end of the state to the other, ‘earn a buck’ in some areas would make no sense.”
Chapman says he prefers an early — rather than a late — antlerless deer season to avoid conflicts with bow hunters in October.
“You don’t lose anything, but you gain a lot of hunter support by going to a September doe season,” he said.
Walmsley also prefers a mid- to late-September season to reduce the numbers of does to the late-winter season. The former would attract more young hunters who might not be willing to tolerate mid-January weather.
He says deer hunters are concerned they are killing too many young “button” bucks, or bucks that already have shed their antlers during the late-winter season.
He says an October gun season to kill does would anger bowhunters stalking bucks just as rutting, or breeding, activity starts to ramp up.
People and deer
Walmsley says both deer-harvest and accident numbers have been fairly steady in recent years. Hunters in all seasons kill about 200,000 deer each year.
“Why now?” he asks of the changes.
“Nobody’s for it,” he says of the task-force recommendations. “They’re doing something the general public is against.”
Shelton says the goals for deer-herd management differ depending on the situation in various parts of the state, especially as development pushes into rural areas that are prime white-tailed deer habitat.
The recommendations set up different targets for the late-winter hunt, depending on the deer.
Wildlife managers often struggle to find solutions when deer populations grow in suburban and formerly rural areas, where the proximity of roads and houses makes hunting less practical.
Big predators such as wolves and cougars were driven from Illinois more than 150 years ago, leaving hunters and cars as the limiting factors for white-tailed deer populations, with the exception of diseases like chronic wasting disease or epizootic hemorrhagic disease. The latter is spread by biting gnats, but is spotty and local in its effects.
Some deer with chronic wasting disease were found in areas on the outskirts of Rockford, creating a challenge for wildlife managers who wanted to thin the herd to help slow the spread of the disease.
The task force recommends that controlled hunting programs be used whenever possible to control deer numbers in urban areas, but admits that gaining the upper hand is difficult in environments where large numbers of people and deer come together.
“However, controlled hunting programs implemented throughout the country in urban situations have demonstrated that hunting can be used as a safe, effective, and economical approach to urban deer control,” the report says.
What happens next
Shelton says the recommendations of the task force are being considered together instead of a la carte.
“We had to ask, ‘Is it really a positive step for us or not?’ and I think most of them are,” he says.
Getting new rules on the books is “doable” Shelton says, but will require a serious effort.
Normally, rules go through an internal review process before they are put out for public comment. Finally, comments are reviewed and any changes made before the second review period.
Then the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules must agree.
“It’s a long way to the season, but …”
Shelton says a lot of things have to happen well before hunting season arrives. Information has to get out to hunters, permits have to be printed, and computer programs and databases must be updated.
Shelton says that with the exception of chronic wasting disease making inroads in northern Illinois, the health of the state’s deer herd is excellent.
Illinois also is a rich agricultural state with an abundance of habitat for white-tailed deer.
That means Illinois can easily support even greater numbers of deer.
“We’re nowhere near carrying capacity,” Shelton says. “Carrying capacity in Illinois is extremely high. Nobody in their right mind wants to manage for carrying capacity.
“The fact is the health of the Illinois deer herd is great — exceptional, except for the occurrences of chronic wasting disease (in northern Illinois). You can still have great trophy hunting (while managing to reduce accidents and crop damage).”
Beverlin says he hopes DNR officials take the recommendations of the task force, but make final decisions based on science.
“Farmers, bowhunters and legislators have no business setting absolute restrictions in a biological setting,” Beverlin says.
The task force should be able to make recommendations, including setting parameters and goals to be achieved.
“But it’s up to DNR to decide biologically how to get within the parameters.”