Politics destroying Illinois deer herd
Don Higgins is a 45-year-old freelance outdoors writer from Shelby County. His magazine articles have appeared in North American Whitetail, Bowhunter, Outdoor Life, Petersens Bowhunting, Whitetail Journal, Illinois Game & Fish, Buckmasters as well as several other publications.
He is also the author of a very popular deer hunting book, “Hunting Trophy Whitetails in the Real World” which is now in its second printing. Click here for more information.
While Don’s reputation is cemented in the fact that he regularly tags “bigger than average” whitetail bucks, he prefers to be known for promoting sound deer management and ethical hunting practices. When not scheming the downfall of another monster whitetail or writing about it, Don owns and operates Higgins Tree Farm, a multi-faceted tree business which specializes in creating quality wildlife habitat through conservation tree and native grass plantings.
When whitetail hunters across North America hear the word Illinois they envision monster bucks and a well-managed deer herd. These thoughts are understandable, since decades ago Illinois had a pair of whitetail biologists who thought outside the box and through sound biological practices created the premier whitetail herd in all of North America. Jack Calhoun and Forest Loomis were responsible for innovative management ideas such as “either sex” deer hunting when other states were shooting only bucks.
They also micro-managed Illinois’ limited but growing deer herd on a county-by-county basis rather than on a statewide level. Realizing that Illinois is a vast state with a variety of terrain, data was gathered through county check stations manned with college students during the firearms season. Because of the innovative ideas of these pioneers in whitetail management, Illinois became the model that other states mimicked as they tried to better manage their own herds.
Today most hunters across North America still think of Illinois as “whitetail paradise.” But most resident deer hunters know better. Resident hunters have witnessed more than a decade of slow destruction of the Illinois deer herd caused by poor management decisions with bigger crushing blows apparently soon to come. The politically created “Illinois Deer Task Force” held a series of meetings across the state last summer for “public input” on proposed deer hunting regulation changes.
The problem with this is two-fold; first, the idea of “public input” was “misleading”, to be kind. While the public was allowed to submit written input or speak one on one with members of the task force, the proposed changes were already outlined before the first meeting took place and remain the same today. These meetings were seen by the hunting public as nothing more than a well-orchestrated political farce whereby the political task force could say they held meetings for public input. What they fail to mention is that 100 percent of that public input essentially went straight to the garbage can.
Secondly, the changes proposed by the task force are all detrimental to the proper management of the Illinois deer herd and will do little to address the concerns for which they were designed.
One proposed regulation calls for a nine-day antlerless season to be held in mid-January each year. The problem is not in having an “antlerless season” but in the timing of it. Right now Illinois has a three-day antlerless season in mid-January and recent harvest results show that more than 21 percent of the deer killed in this season are actually bucks! This happens for a couple of reasons; a lot of bucks have shed their antlers by mid-January and are mistakenly shot as does.
Furthermore, this late in the season, buck fawns are as big as their mothers making them hard to distinguish from does. States such as Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota which are striving to improve the overall health of their deer herds are scheduling their antlerless seasons in September and October so that the desired results are obtained. In an effort to harvest more female deer, Wisconsin is even forcing hunters to shoot a doe before harvesting a buck through their “earn-a-buck” program.
Since Illinois politics eliminated our deer check stations, implementing a similar “earn-a-buck” program is all but out of the question. Outside of politics, there is no reason why Illinois cannot have an antlerless season in the early fall to better manage the resource. Furthermore, many Illinois counties which now have the special antlerless season do not even need it. Many veteran Illinois whitetail hunters are screaming for a September antlerless season over the January alternative but apparently their cries are falling on deaf ears. An additional benefit of a September season is the warmer weather which would be conducive to more participation from youth hunters who find it difficult to bear the cold January temperatures.
Another proposal of the Deer Task Force calls for an additional day to be added to the three-day November firearms season. One of the reasons that Illinois became the model for other states to follow was that our short firearms season during the whitetails November mating period allowed more bucks to survive and grow to older age classes. Some states such as Iowa and Ohio which are striving to better manage and improve their whitetail herds do not allow a single day of firearms hunting in November. On the other hand we have Illinois going in the opposite direction and adding days to the November firearms season. This proposal is strictly politically driven with no biological basis supporting it.
Most Illinois deer hunters recognize that the deer herd must be maintained at reasonable levels. Even so, this objective can be obtained with regulations that improve the current herd structure. Either of these new task force proposals will have negative consequences for the Illinois deer herd and combined they will be devastating. What is more amazing is how these new proposals are being “sold” to the public. Propaganda distributed by the task force used deer-vehicle collisions as a basis for determining that these steps were needed. The irony is that figures show that the deer related auto accidents in Illinois actually peaked in 2003, that is five years ago!
Furthermore, Chicago’s Cook County and the counties surrounding it where firearms hunting is not allowed are at the top of the list of counties with the most deer-vehicle collisions in terms of miles driven. These new task force driven regulations will not even be in effect in the areas where task force supplied rational says they are needed the most. On top of that, these areas are not even being addressed in any manner by the task force!
Furthermore, we are coming off of a season where the deer harvest in Illinois was down by roughly 11,000. In fact it is the buck portion of the harvest that has actually suffered as that 11,000 figure not only represents the drop in overall harvest but also the buck harvest. Could it be that ridiculous deer management regulations are already having a negative impact on the antlered portion of our deer herd? Only the political lunacy of Illinois could drive the logic behind the current task force proposals.
In a nutshell it is the same political lunacy that has our last governor in prison and our current one fighting to stay out. That’s right, dirty Illinois politics is deeply entrenched in the management of the Illinois deer herd and is poised to destroy it right before our eyes.
This is not the first time that dirty politics has made its way into the deer management arena in Illinois. Several years ago the DNR formed the Deer Hunters Advisory Committee (DHAC) to address the concerns brought forth by numerous sportsmen’s groups over the influx of non-resident deer hunters into the state. Illinois deer hunters cleared a major hurdle when the DHAC passed a resolution to cap the non-resident archery deer permits at 1998 levels or 12,800, even though many hunters thought the limit should have been about half of that number.
The compromise that many hunters found hard to swallow at the 12,800 level was soon being shoved down their throats as the limit was soon being raised to meet whatever the demand for non-resident deer permits seemed to be. Today that limit is so high (25,000 in 2008) that there are generally less applicants for the permits than permits available. In other words, there is no limit in Illinois, any non-resident deer hunter that wants to hunt in Illinois gets to do so.
Again, state politics allows this to happen without regards to any effect it may have on the Illinois deer herd or Illinois residents. To some this point may appear as “old news” but actually it figures heavily into the current issue of proposals brought forth by the current task force.
If one looks at the areas with the biggest problem of deer over-population, these are clearly those areas with the heaviest concentration of outfitters and leasing along with urban areas where firearms hunting is not allowed. Outfitters cater almost exclusively to non-resident hunters. With an unlimited client base they lease hundreds of thousands of acres for those clients to hunt. Obviously these hunters do not travel to Illinois to shoot a doe but instead take a disproportionate number of antlered bucks.
The result is a number of problems. To begin, this leased acreage is more or less a sanctuary for female deer to reproduce with little hunting pressure to control their numbers. It is easy to see the population explosion that takes place.
Furthermore the sex ratio of the deer herd in these areas becomes heavily skewed in favor of the females resulting in an unbalanced herd. As proof consider Pike County which is probably the outfitting capital of Illinois. Figures show that more than 50 percent of all land in Pike County is under commercial lease with outfitters, and this does not even take into consideration the acreage leased for private hunting use primarily by non-residents.
It has gotten so bad that at least one high ranking DNR employee has admitted that the DNR has lost control of the deer herd in that area! Ironically that this very same DNR employee attended the DHAC meetings several years back and refused to take a stance on the issue of limiting non-resident hunters, saying the issue was a “social” issue rather than a “biological” one. I wonder how this person feels today when no matter how many permits the DNR makes available for Pike County, they do not sell out because the local hunters have no place to hunt. Yet here we sit poised to have more ill thought out regulations forced upon us by a political “task force”.
The approach that is now taken in Illinois in regards to the management of our deer herd is to ignore sound biological science and manage by politics. The great deer herd created decades ago by foresighted biologists in Illinois is on the cusp of being destroyed. Special interest groups have seen the dollar value of our deer herd and sought to exploit it. Even the legislature has gotten involved by raising the cost of non-resident deer hunting permits while also increasing their number to garner more dollars for the state coffers. They fail to realize that the value is in a well-managed deer herd, not simply in the deer.
Special interest groups like outfitters and the Farm Bureau got their foot in the door because a well-managed herd allowed them to profit. Through short sightedness and sheer ignorance of proper deer management they have used politics to push the Illinois deer herd down a path to destruction. Politics is clearly destroying the future of our deer herd for instant financial gain without regards to the health of the resource we are leaving the next generation. While many states have made conscious efforts to improve their own deer herds, Illinois politics has exploited ours while also slowly destroying it.
Our neighboring Iowa serves as a great example of a state that protects the resource while striving to improve it, all while looking out for its residents. Although Iowa and Illinois encompass almost exactly the same land mass, Iowa allows a fraction of the number of non-resident hunters that Illinois does (2,100 archery non-residents in Iowa vs. 25,000 for Illinois). Iowa does this while also having only a fraction the number of resident hunters. Iowa also allocates those non-resident permits by region and employs hunting regulations and season dates that protect the resource. It is no accident that Iowa has clearly surpassed Illinois on the list of states with a quality deer herd.
If the trend continues and Illinois implements the changes proposed by the current task force we will fall much further down the list. When this happens we will all lose. We owe it to our children and future generations to turn things around and once again make Illinois home of the premier whitetail herd in North America. We have the terrain, the climate, the genetics and we have the people capable of doing it but we have Illinois politics taking our most precious natural resource in the wrong direction.
What we are seeing from the current deer task force is a bad reaction to a bad decision made years before. Politics prevented a reasonable limit on non-resident deer hunters. The result was that unlimited non-resident hunters led to rampant leasing over huge tracts of land where DNR regulations could no longer control the deer herd. Those same misguided notions that got us into this mess are on the verge of another step down the wrong path as they try to correct their past mistake.
Extending the firearms deer season or adding extra antlerless hunting days will have no effect on the lands where hunting is not allowed or strictly controlled by individuals looking to make money from non-resident hunters. The regulations which are currently being proposed will have detrimental effects across the state while doing nothing to address the real problems where they need to be addressed.
An army of Illinois deer hunters await the direction of the DNR with regards to the task force recommendations. Because of recent history, most are expecting the worst and yet many are still fighting until the end to save our deer herd from further destruction. Those dedicated sportsmen see the Illinois deer herd as much more than a source of income to be exploited for immediate financial gain. They see it as a renewable resource that should be managed as wisely as possible to ensure its quality now and for future generations.
After coming off a hunting season that saw roughly 10,000 less deer (bucks) killed and the public outcry against the task force recommendations, it would seem logical to table any changes for at least a year. Even DNR deer biologist Paul Shelton who declined an opportunity to answer questions for this article was recently quoted as saying “The fact is the health of the Illinois deer herd is great — exceptional” and “We’re nowhere near carrying capacity.”
Why then are we even considering these changes, especially given the public opposition? Oh yeah … Illinois politics as usual.