Whether Illinois hunters like it or not, crossbows may soon be part of the state's special archery season. A bill that would legalize crossbows for all hunters already passed the senate and is poised to sail through the house.
Based on a 2005 survey, few hunters, including Lynn Wilcox, want them. As president of the Illinois Bowhunters Society, Wilcox sees no good coming from the addition of crossbows in the archery season.
"Our biggest problem is access," he said. "By allowing crossbows, we will see a tremendous influx of new hunters, well into the thousands, which will likely displace existing bow hunters. We just don't have anywhere to put them."
Is this fear irrational? Or are crossbows the salvation for declining participation and a decrease in license revenue?
FEWER VERTICAL BOW
Virginia, for example, sold 15,000 crossbow licenses in 2006, the first year they were legal for all hunting seasons. That number jumped to 27,459 in 2012, generating nearly a half-million dollars in revenue. But while Virginia hunters have flocked to crossbows, they have been abandoning vertical bows, validating fears by some industry insiders, including Wilcox, that the rising popularity of crossbows would hurt the compound bow industry. That fear may have some truth.
"We don't know exactly how many hunters have moved from compound bows to crossbows, but looking at the license data, we can be pretty certain that it's a substantial number," says Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project leader Matt Knox. "Part of that has to do with the aging population of hunters in general. Younger kids are more likely to start out with a crossbow, as well. I don't know how many of them end up switching to a compound."
Based on recent trends, the answer might be: Not many. Virginia hunters bought 54,000 regular archery licenses in 2006 but just 43,791 in 2012, a sharp downward trend that follows the rise in popularity of crossbows. But Knox said Virginia bow hunters were leaving the sport long before crossbows were legalized.
"They've definitely helped reverse a trend," he added.
From a wildlife management perspective, what people hunt with is far less important than the fact that they continue to hunt. But as Knox said, anything that helps increase participation is better than the alternative.
"As participation declines and deer numbers increase, we will rely on hunters more than ever to help manage our deer herd," said Knox. "We can't do it without them. We need to use every tool we can."
'NOT KILLING ENOUGH DEER'
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation programs section supervisor Jerry Shaw agrees. Although his agency doesn't track the number of hunters using crossbows, which were legalized for all deer hunting last year, Shaw said participation in the archery season was a record high last year and so was the archery deer kill.
"Archery hunters as a group just aren't an effective deer management tool. We aren't killing enough deer," said Shaw. "Our agency has been addressing this for years and we just felt that allowing crossbows would give us more opportunities to reduce our deer numbers. Archery hunters are more willing to take a doe, and that's exactly what we need right now."
Because the ODWC doesn't track crossbow participation, Shaw can't say if the increased harvest and participation were directly related to the addition of crossbows. He's thrilled by the increased deer kill, though.
Knox, however, said there is no indication that crossbows have helped reduce deer numbers, especially in urban areas where deer-car collisions and property damage complaints continue to rise.
"We certainly thought they had potential as a management tool in our urban areas. We don't know if they've helped, but if I had to guess, I'd say probably not, at least not as much as we would like," he said. "We hoped people that weren't into hunting with a compound bow would be more willing to hunt if they could use a crossbow. Anybody that shot a BB gun as a kid could effectively hunt with a crossbow."
That's exactly why so many vertical bow hunters and bow hunting organizations were opposed to the addition of crossbows in traditional archery seasons. It's not just about the increased deer kill to guys like Wilcox. It's about tradition and preserving the sanctity of the early autumn woods during the archery-only season.
HIGHER SUCCESS RATE
The difference was greater in Michigan, where crossbow hunters outhunted vertical archers by an 11 percent margin. However, that's exactly why so many state wildlife agencies are embracing crossbows.
Fewer deer may be a goal in some states, but Wilcox said Illinois can't take much more of a reduction in its deer herd, which is one reason he's opposed to the addition of crossbows. The state liberalized bag limits several years ago in an effort to decrease the deer herd. It worked and hunters are complaining of fewer deer sightings and lower success.
The addition of crossbows and the resulting increase in hunters would likely knock the deer population even lower, feared Wilcox, which would result in a decrease in bow hunting opportunities for everyone.
It's a common argument used by crossbow opponents everywhere.
HERE TO STAY
So far, however, that hasn't happened in Arkansas or Ohio. Both have allowed crossbows for decades now. Nor have seasons in been altered in other states due to the addition of crossbows. In fact, deer seasons and bag limits have actually increased in Ohio, despite a huge increase in crossbow participation.
Now that the dust has settled on the crossbow debate, they don't appear to be much of an issue. None of the fears by opponents have come true, and bow hunters and crossbow hunters are sharing the woods just fine. But crossbows don't seem to be the salvation many wildlife managers had hoped they would be, either. Instead, they seem to be just another way for hunters to kill deer. Like them, hate them or still not sure, crossbows are here to stay.