Will Illinois allow bows in gun season?

February 10, 2008 at 09:26 PM
House Bill 4631 Amends the Wildlife Code. Authorizes taking deer during the open season with a bow and arrow or a crossbow device for handicapped persons and persons age 62 or older. Click here for a link to check the bill's status.

Things have finally started happening on the legislative front in Springfield. Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) has introduced House Bill 4631, which would allow the use of archery equipment during the gun season. On the surface, it seems like a pretty harmless bill. But taking a look at how it might be implemented makes even die-hard bowhunters think twice about a bill that would directly benefit them.

It’s no secret that I’ve spent the better part of the last six years being involved with the Illinois Bowhunters Society.You would think this bill would be a slam-dunk for both statewide bowhunting organizations. More opportunity for bowhunters, what more could an organization ask for? But it seems that a lot of bowhunters aren’t in favor of it.

Does an organization that fights for bowhunters rights, need to push for a law that would add another seven days to an existing 107-day season? In addition to our liberal season, bowhunters already have 107 days of hunting, they buy unlimited tags over the counter, they can shoot as many does as they want to, they already get the peak of the rut, they get six to seven weeks afield before gun hunters hit the woods, and we’re already making the argument that we don’t want to share OUR season with the likes of the crossbow. So how does it look to ask to intrude on a season where we’ve never been?

The Illinois Natural History Survey from 2004-05 asked this very question to bowhunters. Of the 900+ respondents, 57% opposed the idea, while only 37% supported it. The survey stopped short of asking gun hunters how they felt about the idea, but they were overwhelmingly against letting crossbows into the gun season.

My first question to Rep. Phelps was, “Why?” I asked Rep. Phelps where the idea came from. He told me that “the bowhunters” asked for it. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard lawmakers say that “bowhunters” were the source of an idea. The last time was when Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) told me that “bowhunters” had nixed the idea for an either-sex youth season. That turned out to be a few selfish bowhunters from one area of the state who didn’t want to share their woods with kids.

Now we have Rep. Phelps (pictured at right), who hails from the same district as Sen. Forby, touting that “the bowhunters” want Illinois Outdoorsthe gun hunters to share their season with them. After explaining to Rep. Phelps that I was representing one state bowhunting organization, and that I’d just talked to the other state bowhunting organization who also hadn’t been asked their opinion, he quickly changed his tune and told me that a couple of vocal bowhunters had approached him with the idea in a recent meeting he attended.

I started bowhunting about 10 years before I ever picked up a muzzleloader and hunted during the gun season. At one time I would have been thrilled to be able to take part during those 6-7 days. I always felt a little left out, but I never thought about going to a state lawmaker and asking him to let me take part in the season. Would I bowhunt during the gun season now if this passes? I’m not sure. The thought of trailing a bow-shot deer around the woods during the crowded gun season isn’t an idea that sounds too appealing anymore. I hunt my fair share of the 107-day archery seasons, and I have no problem picking up a gun to be able to hunt in the gun season.

The last real statistic I saw was from 1999, where there were 40,000 bowhunters who didn’t gun hunt, and 130,000 gun hunters who didn’t bowhunt. At the time, 50,000 hunters did both. While there may be more bowhunters now than in 1999, I’ll guess that the 40,000 figure is still right. That’s about one-third of the 120,000 bowhunters we have in Illinois today. I guess if we had better statistics from the DNR, we’d have a better idea on the exact numbers.

So, let’s take a look at the possibilities of implementing the idea. It sounds simple at first, but you quickly realize that there are many opinions about how to even make it happen. Of course, lawmakers don’t have to sweat the details. That’s what our understaffed DNR is for, right? We basically have to look at the idea in three different ways:

Option 1) Bowhunters would get to use their tags already purchased over the counter that are good statewide. This is probably the least intrusive, yet the most unfair. Letting bowhunters continue to take multiple deer when some gun hunters are hunting the same season under a one-and-done rule, hardly seems like the best idea.

This idea also puts an extra 40,000 hunters in the woods during an already crowded season. One idea that the DNR has always talked about was safety. When they add more gun permits, a lot of times that only puts more permits in the same hunter’s hands. This objective would put more butts in the tree stands. Do we have room?

And what happens when the other 80,000 bowhunters who used to buy gun tags, don’t buy them anymore? That’s $1.5 million dollars out of a state deer program budget of about $16 million, that comes when our governor is already sweeping money out of an underfunded DNR. Who takes the leftover 80,000 gun tags that are no longer bought? And how does the DNR figure out county-by-county quotas for gun season now, since they would no longer have any idea how many hunters are afield in a given county?

Option 2) Bowhunters would have to buy a gun-season tag. This seems to be the most popular option that I’ve heard people talk about. But there’s two ways this could go.

Option 2A) The DNR keeps the county-quota system in place. That means that bowhunters would compete with gun hunters for the same permits. Bowhunters, the same guys already getting 107 days in the woods, could now be taking permits away from some of the 130,000 gun hunters who choose not to bowhunt. Is this fair? Do we need to let bowhunters have those extra seven days, at the expense of fellow hunters who may be left out in the cold for the entire Illinois deer season? Again, we have to ask ourselves why we’re wanting this.

Option 2B) The DNR scraps the county-quota system, and raises the number of available tags to accommodate the other 40,000 bowhunters. This seems to be the most selfish idea of the three, and the one that totally disrupts the existing management program. Why should our DNR be forced to abandon their management policies just to satisfy the wants of a few bowhunters who apparently don’t get enough chances in 107 days?

So, what’s your opinion? Many see this as one of the biggest issues to face deer hunting in Illinois in several years. What is best for Illinois? Is there a way to make it happen, without losing so much of what Illinois has gained in the last 50 years of deer hunting? Is there a way to stick together as hunters, without being too greedy and taking a tag away from someone else who chooses to hunt differently than we do?