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Historic drop in harvest in firearm deer seasons indicates need for change

In retrospect I wonder whether deer skull skeletfound while uplhunting this fall was symptomatic more than symbolic as firearm deer

In retrospect, I wonder whether the deer skull and skeleton found while upland hunting this fall was symptomatic more than symbolic, as firearm deer harvest in Illinois saw a historic decline. Hunters looked at wintry, often-deerless, landscapes. | Dale B

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Updated: January 16, 2014 6:38AM

Points on deer should be on their racks, not racked up in statistics.

But the historic drop in harvest by Illinois firearm hunters in 2013 makes a point all its own — a sharp one.

It only took the low harvest of 74,191 deer during the two firearm seasons Nov. 22-24 and Dec. 5-8 to go from the anecdotal evidence of hunters’ field reports to the reality of a 25 percent drop in harvest from last fall, when 99,546 deer were taken by firearm hunters.

Illinois’ deer herd is out of whack, and so is management.

Yes, weather was tough. I hunted all seven days, and all seven — the first time I remember that happening — had tough weather (rain/snow, high winds, bitter cold, snow/sleet/freezing rain or all of that).

Weather affects the time hunters spend in the field and how hard they hunt. But while hunters might reduce their total hours of effort, they are in the field during the prime evening or morning hours, even in miserable weather.

More than weather and more than seemingly unlimited doe permits in some counties and overharvest is affecting Illinois’ deer herd. My guess is that outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease the last two years were worse than calculated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and that coyotes have an ongoing and growing impact with predation on fawns.

But I don’t know for certain, nor do other hunters or wildlife professionals, what caused the historic drop in harvest. But we damm sure need to find out.

The first step in finding out should have been to make an emergency closure of late-winter seasons for antlerless deer and to shorten the archery season — say, to Jan. 1. It was too close to the season to close muzzleloader season, but the other seasons could have been handled in plenty of time in the age of social media.

But after several days of mulling the historic drop in firearm harvest (figures were released late Thursday), IDNR director Marc Miller made a misstep. He continued the muzzleloader season, which ends Sunday; the bow season, which runs through mid-January; and the split winter antlerless seasons Dec. 26-29 and Jan. 17-19.

Miller’s formal assessment was this: ‘‘Once all deer seasons are complete, our biologists will evaluate deer-management goals on a county-by-county basis to achieve stability in our deer herd.’’

I agree biologists should set up the framework and, for all its failings, county-by-county is probably the best structure. But we are talking about an emergency situation here. The response should be on par with that.

If I were the wildlife professional in the director’s
office in Springfield the fall before an gubernatorial election and the most important event in the
world of Illinois outdoors saw a drop of 25 percent, my rear end would have been red and emergency responses would be on the table.

In the long term, I would like to see Illinois wildlife professionals begin a statistical model to monitor the deer herd, other than the insurance company-based deer/vehicle collision charts.

For crying out loud, Illinois has kept a statistically important method of monitoring cottontail rabbits (road-kill index) since 1975 and for decades had a call-count (tweaked in 2010) for monitoring pheasants and bobwhite quail.

This stuff matters in the long term.

So when Brian Potter of Tinley Park, who hunted in eastern Kankakee County without seeing a deer, emails, ‘‘I hate deer and am going to start looking for golf clubs,’’ I would take his joking point seriously if I were an IDNR honcho.

Sometimes joking asides make the sharpest points.

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