Deer season is once again upon us, and many hunters are wondering what will be in store.
In the 2016-2017 season the overall harvest was 144,150. It ranked lowest since the turn of the century and continues a downward trend since the record harvest in the 2005-2006 season.
The Prairie State still ranks among the top of the list when it comes to the premier deer hunting destinations, though. And there are plenty of opportunities this season to fill a tag. We'll take a look here at some of the factors contributing to the deer harvest totals statewide and a little of what hunters can expect this season.
IDNR has reported for years that Illinois was overpopulated with deer. While some counties are at what biologists consider the right population densities, other localities still have what some would consider an overabundance. But, in those areas that have great deer production, the hunt seems to have little effect.
Biologists look at many factors to determine the correct carrying capacity of an area, how many hunting permits will be issued and how many late winter antlerless permits will be available for late season hunts.
While hunters like to see lots of deer, farmers, gardeners, drivers and other groups are often of a different mindset.
Crop, orchard and landscape damage is a serious concern for many Illinois farmers. Of equal or greater concern is the safety hazard deer pose.
Almost any non-hunter that experiences the frustration and financial loss of a deer-vehicle collision will advocate deer reduction in their area. State Farm Insurance reports that Illinois drivers run a 1 in 192 chance of being involved in a deer-vehicle accident and the average cost to repair the damage is around $4,000.
Illinois DNR biologists have set deer hunting goals for each county based on a number of factors, including the number of deer-motor vehicle crashes, the previous year's harvest numbers, deer depredation on crops and disease among the population. Numerous deer-vehicle collisions and abundant damage due to deer in a county may indicate too many deer.
As deer populations come down into desired levels, late winter antlerless permits are lessened or counties become closed for the late season.
"You try to hit the right balance where you have a sustainable deer population," IDNR spokesman Tim Schweizer noted.
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Illinois hunters are keeping their eyes on two diseases that could greatly impact our herd.
Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease is a viral disease and is spread to deer through biting midges, often found near stagnant water. In 2016 there were 53 cases of EHD reported. The majority of them were in Cook County. Drought, like what transpired in 2012 and 2013, exacerbates the problem by concentrating deer around the remaining water. While concentrated, an infected midge can transmit the virus from deer to deer. Luckily, deer in Illinois can rapidly reproduce and overcome the losses in a few years.
Chronic wasting disease was first discovered in whitetail deer in Illinois in 2002. CWD is a neurological disease that is lethal to deer, and it poses a serious threat to deer populations in Illinois. Unfortunately, there is no treatment or vaccination available. While studies have found no evidence that humans can contract CWD from contact with deer, or from eating venison, the disease is still impacting hunters.
The infection rate in Illinois is slightly more than 1 percent of deer tested, far less than found in Wisconsin. Although the rate has remained low because of the aggressive Illinois policies, CWD continues to spread to new areas as infected deer roam. As of 2016, confirmed cases have been identified in 16 northern Illinois counties. Carroll County is the latest county to see a deer test positive.
Since there is no known cure, some feel the disease has the potential of extirpating deer from Illinois and spreading to neighboring states. The current best preventive measure is containment by decreasing deer to deer contact. This is being done in two ways. The first is by lowering deer densities in "high risk" counties by making more deer hunting permits available and holding a special CWD firearm deer season. The IDNR also conducts an annual sharpshooting program after deer hunting ends.
While controversial, Illinois is leading the nation in preventing the spread of CWD; so much so that other CWD-infected states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, are studying the Illinois program to find ways to make their own programs more effective.
While the program decreases the deer density in target areas, it also means increased long-term health for the overall deer population.
If you know Illinois, you know we have great whitetail deer genetics, and given the perfect combination of food and year-round cover, can produce impressive numbers of deer and huge bucks.
But we also should realize that not all areas of the state are equal at providing perfect habitat. As commodities prices rise, more and more marginal land is being cleared, drained and put into crop production.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior.
(Via North American Whitetail)
While crops like soybean and corn provide great seasonal food, once the fields are harvested, there is little in the way of cover, shelter and food. In fact, the biggest threat to our deer is the continued loss of suitable habitat in the highly agricultural counties of central Illinois and the fragmentation and isolation of habitat that does remain.
While pockets of prime habitat can be found all over the Prairie State, the well-known "Golden Triangle" lies within District IV. Take a quick look with apps like google Earth and it's easy to understand why. The land between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers is the perfect mixture of mast-producing hardwoods, lush thick bottomlands and rich farm fields, Deer have everything they need to flourish within a short distance, and the moderately rugged terrain deter most hunters from going far from a road. While Pike County gets all the attention in the media, Brown County is actually a better deer producer when deer density statistics are compared on a square-mile basis.
While the Golden Triangle is nationally known, hunters should look even father south to the real powerhouse of Hardin County. Last year hunters harvested an astounding seven deer per square mile. Neigoring Johnson and Pope counties weren't far behind. And in fact, any county in "Little Egypt" would be a great choice for deer hunting.
Statistically speaking, the first day of the firearm season is the most productive. Most deer hunters try not to miss opening morning. Considering that deer movement brought on by the rut and crop harvesting is at its peak, it's little wonder. As unwary deer are harvested and colder weather drives hunters inside, hunter success plummets as the season wears on.
But, no matter where or when you hunt, the primary factor that determines hunting success is you. It doesn't matter if you're sitting on the edge of a 40-acre woodlot with the skyline of Peoria on the horizon, or deep in a hunting lease in Pike County, the luckiest hunters are those that do the homework long before season starts, practice with their weapon until it becomes second nature and stay in the woods when everyone else is heading home.
Like most things in life, success is truly up to you.
DEER HUNTING WITH A DISABILITY
There's nothing more frustrating than a disability preventing someone from doing something they cherish. Fortunately, the IDNR is actively working to make it easier for those that are physically challenged to get back in the game. Illinois makes reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities, if the hunter follows a few easy steps.
Though a disabled hunter is exempt from a license, they must go through the permit application process in a timely manner. They will have to obtain a permit (either statewide application or site allocation). Having a disability does not exempt a hunter from purchasing a permit. If you are unsure of how to obtain the permit for the site or game you wish to hunt, please call 618-949-3305.
After receiving the permit, call the hunting site 10 days prior to the hunt date and they will make reasonable accommodations for you.
All disabled veterans, resident or non-resident or any person with a Class 2O (previously a P2) or a Class 2A card is exempt from a hunting license.
E-mail your questions to email@example.com or call 618-435-8138 ext. 130.
For more information on outdoor opportunities and programs for persons with disabilities, please contact 618-949-3305. General information about IDNR may be obtained by calling (217) 782-7454. Deaf and hearing impaired individuals may call IDNR's TTY number (217) 782-9175, or use the Ameritech Relay Number at 1-800-526-0844.