Numbers game: what ‘s the right number of deer?
The State Journal-Register
Those inquiring about the status of the Illinois deer herd should be prepared for as many different answers as there are hunters, farmers, business owners and motorists.
Deer, by nature, are hard to pin down.
“It’s a wild living resource that is difficult to control and even harder to quantify,” says Jeff Davis, communications director of Whitetails Unlimited of Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
With the end of deer season come tables of numbers totaling the number of deer killed, broken down by type of season and by county.
Serious Illinois deer hunters have pored over those tables, searching for meaning in the numbers, especially in the counties where they hunt.
Hunters are talking because harvest totals have been declining since the record year in 2005-06 when hunters took 201,301 deer.
Illinois deer hunters wrapped up the 2010-11 season with 181,936 deer killed in all seasons, down from last year’s tally of 189,277.
Whether that’s good or bad may depend upon your point of view.
The view from here
From where Mike Gabriel of Palos Heights sits in his tree stand, the Illinois deer herd must appear to be in pretty good shape.
The 21-year-old hunter bagged two nice bucks — 23 and 11 points — this fall by bow hunting in rural parts of Cook County, about as far removed from the west-central Illinois epicenter of deer hunting as possible.
“A lot of people want to hunt with me and be my best friend now that I have a big deer,” he says.
In Cook County, hunters took 158 deer with a bow, the only legal way to hunt deer in the most urban of counties.
Compare that with perennial champ, Pike County in west central Illinois. Hunters in the county between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers tallied 7,331 in all seasons, including 3,230 by bow.
That’s 46 times the number of deer killed in Cook County, which is 270 miles away.
Disparities like that make it difficult to address the Illinois deer herd as a single entity.
In Cook County, emphasis may be on trying to reduce numbers of deer in an urban area with millions of people and their cars on the road.
In rural Pike County, hunting provides an economic impact of about $60 million.
“It’s a big part of our economy and everybody benefits from the hunters being here,” says Kaye Iftner, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce. “The restaurants are full. The hotels are full. The lodges are full. The gas stations do more business.”
Breaking it down
“Looking at the herd on a statewide basis has limited applicability,” says Paul Shelton, Illinois Department of Natural Resources forest program manager. “As far as the nitty-gritty of looking at the analyses and determining the things we need to do, then the state-wide definition goes out the window, and you have to look at individual units.”
Biologists would prefer to look at more localized groupings, possibly related by genetics or those with some habitat type or geographic area in common.
But years ago, it was decided to use county boundaries.
“We’re setting individual county quotas of how many permits we are going to offer for each county,” he says. “Those numbers will change as management needs change.”
Shelton says DNR does not normally address individual pieces of property. That’s up to the landowner and the hunters in the field.
“What we do is provide a framework to give people the tools to do the right thing,” Shelton says. “If you refuse to let anybody hunt on your property or just take one deer a year, and you end covered up with deer, that specific local area will have a deer overpopulation problem.”
DNR has offered liberal numbers of permits and extended late winter firearm seasons in selected counties to help reduce numbers and meet goals set by the Joint Task Force for Deer Population Control in 2008.
“They have saturated the habitat with hunters and permits, and they can’t do any more,” says Tim Walmsley of Fowler. “They have been trying to reduce the numbers of deer since 2005-2006.”
Walmsley is a veteran Boone and Crockett Club trophy deer-scorer and founder of the Illinois Deer and Turkey Classic.
Illinois resident deer hunters often complain that those who lease land for hunting are interested only in big bucks, not in the overall health of the local deer herd.
Walmsey says individual hunters have to take some responsibility for the acres they own, hunt or manage to help ensure a healthy age structure from young deer to mature bucks.
“The general public isn’t as blind to management issues anymore,” Walmsey says. “They should be able to realize, ‘I’ve shot too many deer and I need to back off.’”
Either way, DNR will hear complaints that not enough is being done.
“Your view is what you can see outside your window,” Shelton says.
Gabriel says he’s been seeing more and more deer where he hunts, about a 15- to 20- minute drive from the more urban parts of Cook County.
“I saw a 12-pointer that came in close, but was behind a bush,” he says. “Another big deer went the wrong way.”
Walmsey says it’s not necessarily a problem with too many deer. “It’s not the deer herd growing out of control, it’s the people growing out of control.”
Davis says it depends upon the individual hunter’s perspective.
“Growing up in Minnesota it was a big deal to see a deer,” he says. “In those days, few hunters even saw one. Now, if three-quarters of them don’t get what they are looking for, it’s a down year.”
Shelton says having a record deer season every year isn’t practical.
“Sustainable management requires having some sort of target population level that is acceptable, and that harvests may have to go up or down over time in order to maintain the population level near that goal,” he says. “Clearly, harvests cannot continue indefinitely to increase, because that would require a population that is always increasing — and that’s not management.”
Iftner says her perception is that business in Pike County was off a bit this fall, but not significantly.
“All the businesses reported a good, strong deer-hunting season,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it was a record year but it was a healthy year.”
Because no one knows exactly how many deer reside among Illinois’ 12.9 million people, the number of deer-vehicle accidents has become the measuring stick.
Deer harvest quotas in each county are pegged to goals set by the Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control in 2008 that recommended the deer population be controlled to reduce deer vehicle accidents at a level 14 percent below the peak in 2003.
In 2003 there were 25,660 deer-vehicle accidents.
DNR has enacted expanded late-winter seasons in selected counties and made some types of permits available over the counter so the state can reach its deer herd and accident reduction goals.
But using accident rates as a guide has its drawbacks, too.
For one, accident reporting requirements have changed.
The old rule was accidents with more than $500 worth of damage had to be reported. Now the figure is $1,500, with some exceptions.
As a result, deer-vehicle collision numbers have dropped dramatically, making it look like Illinois deer hunters did their job and then some.
On their face, the numbers show deer-vehicle accidents declining from 24,212 in 2008 to 18,831 in 2009 — a significant decrease.
“As a result (of the reporting change), the number of reported accidents dropped significantly, and our long-term dataset of DVA information is not comparable to new data,” says Paul Shelton, forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“In short, we either have to find a way to make valid comparisons between old and new data, or we will have to change our approach entirely.”
IDOT has been using crashes that result in injuries as a way to measure success.
According to the agency, injuries declined from 842 in 2007 to 752 in 2008 and 708 in 2009. There were six fatalities in 2009.