In the next few days (or even hours), we’ll know the results of the 2nd firearm season deer harvest. Like many point out, it seems that hunters are never happy with the harvest numbers. If the harvest is too low, it’s “proof” that the herd is down… or hunters restrained… or IDNR reduced permits… or we had bad weather… or too many standing crops… or any number of other reasons.
If the harvest increases, some people will claim the herd is growing… or maybe the state issued too many permits… or we had perfect weather and crop conditions… or hunters didn’t restrain… or a combination of all of them.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and all of those factors have an impact.
No matter how the numbers come out, deer harvest only gives us one piece of the management puzzle. By itself, short-term harvest trends generally won’t tell us much in terms of the overall herd size. Think about 2012, as EHD was claiming thousands of deer across IL. The harvest remained high (giving the impression that the herd was stable), even as the population was rapidly declining according to other data.
Hunter success rates have dipped below 20% in recent years, down from highs near 30%. IDNR issues 4-5 times more permits than they expect to see in the harvest. Already, IDNR is relying on a great deal of “restraint” from of hunters so we don’t end up filling all of our permits. But has an extra level of restraint led to lower harvest levels the past few years? If that were the case, then we’d expect to see the herd growing, right?
The 2015 first firearm season harvest was up 12% from last year. The second season saw pretty good weather overall. Archery harvest is on target to be up about 4% year over year. Do these trends tell us that the herd is up 4% or 12%? I don’t think so. It simply tells us that hunters are shooting more deer, and it could be due to a variety of reasons, as stated above.
Here’s my take on what’s happening in the field.
I spend a lot of time cruising the web on different hunting sites. Between that and being in contact with IWA members, I hear a lot of different opinions from people all over the state. While most people feel that herd levels are still well below what they should be, it’s not getting worse. Unfortunately, it’s not getting better, generally speaking. Some hunters have seen small increases, but what will that mean if we have a harvest increase?
Herd numbers aren’t dropping like they were after the Joint Deer Task Force regulations first went into effect, or when EHD hit in 2012 and 2013. I think we’ve reached a low point (no pun intended), and levels have stabilized. Population levels aren’t moving significantly either direction right now. That tells me that the low harvest numbers from the past couple of years isn’t really helping grow the herd, it’s just keeping things stable.
IDNR uses everyone’s favorite metric… deer-vehicle accidents (DVA’s)… as a way to track population. Like it or not, it’s been a pretty good indicator of the drastic herd drop over the past several years. But the timing of the data results is far from ideal. We won’t know if the herd expanded this year until August 2016, when DVA data is released… long after we’ve already increased the harvest.
According to 2014 DVA data, the deer population was stable at a level well below the target population rate. Wouldn’t an increase in the harvest have a detrimental effect on population growth if the herd itself isn’t expanding at a faster rate than the harvest is increasing?
If we can’t grow the herd with a few years of harvest less than 150,000, how can we grow the herd with a harvest of 160-170,000? And like I said, we won’t know the impact for a while. Overharvest now would drive DVA rates down in 2016. We won’t know those 2016 results until late-summer of 2017… which would push any possible regulation changes (like that would happen anyway) off until 2018!
My biggest concern with current harvest numbers is the possibility of not aligning with other management data. Is it the right time to be increasing deer harvest? Do we have data that supports an increase in population? Or are hunters killing more deer because of some other factor (better weather, tired of restraint, etc.)? Furthermore, if we’re still in that “low point” of deer population (as other data suggests), and we want to increase the herd size, shouldn’t IDNR be managing the harvest so we don’t exceed the target?
IDNR recently told a group of deer hunters in Springfield that herd management is up to hunters, not IDNR. Harvest limits, like many other states implement at more detailed levels, won’t work in IL according to IDNR. I haven’t killed a deer for a few years. I’ve had chances at smaller bucks and a few does. I’d love to be able to shoot a doe for the meat, but we’re not anywhere close to the deer numbers we should have where I hunt. But we can’t expect hunters to hold out forever, with little/no support from IDNR to help bring numbers back up.
Hunter satisfaction should be a high priority for our IDNR. Herd levels are lower than agreed-upon goals. That is a fact. If you want evidence that deer hunter satisfaction in IL is on a decline, all you need to do is look at the drop in non-resident permit sales. IL has lost its luster for being a top-end destination for whitetails.
Pike County has tumbled from its top spot for deer harvest, as IDNR continues to drop their population levels with the maximum herd reduction seasons and nuisance permit issuances. Their continued catering to non-hunting stakeholders… below agreed-upon population levels… is hitting them right where it counts, in their bank account with lower permit sales.
Every year we see more new opportunities to get new hunters involved. Shouldn’t we make sure they have good deer numbers to hunt, and we’re prepared for new users? How do we expect to keep new recruits once we get them? Participation is just as much about hunter retention as it is about hunter recruitment. Both are equally important. But we seem to only cater to the recruitment side.
New seasons. New weapons. New colors to wear in the woods (as if that was a barrier before). There’s no shortage of coming up with ways to sell more permits. But once we have those recruits in the woods, IDNR doesn’t do a whole lot to keep them there. Once they are recruited, it doesn’t take long to realize that hunters don’t rank very high on the list of stakeholders when it comes to resource management (see the Pike County example above).
How many hunters do we hope to add with all the shiny new recruiting tools? If we don’t grow the herd from these current low population levels, what deer are all of these new recruits going to shoot? If we simply add incremental harvest to what we already have… won’t we lower the herd (and hunter success rates) even more? Is that the master plan to recruit and retain hunters?
I know I live in a fantasy world where IDNR actually has goals (short-term and long-term), and they manage to those goals from BOTH directions. It sure seems to me that if the IDNR data suggest the deer herd isn’t growing (which is a fact)… is an increasing deer harvest a good thing?
If we want more hunters in the woods… and we want to keep them interested (and buying all those permits)… how can we accomplish that if we never add back to the resource?
Call me silly, but I sure thought it was the job of our IDNR to manage our resource for now, and for the future.