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KC's Corner

What Will 2015 Deer Harvest Tell Us?

Wed, December 09, 2015

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.


Kevin, what i have noticed this year is that the places that i have hunted since EHD killed EVERYTHING THAT LIVED There are slightly better now.  SInce 2012 i have hunted these places and been shut out nearly every time, this year i would normally see a couple of deer at these locations.  They were still terrible, age structure is still no existent but there were a couple of deer there.  The locations that kept decent herd numbers were about the same with a slight very slight increase in age structure.  Meaning that there was a shooter every 10 country blocks instead of every township in most of these areas.  The harvest being up or down is pretty well meaningless.  In 25 years of deer hunting, i have never seen a season were you could virtually deer hunt every single day.  Very little rain, very little cold, very little hot, Every day its been 50 to 70 for the high and sunny.  As far as gun season goes, if you take half the season away, the half that remains will have more pressure on it… its just how things are and after idiot season, i mean LWS was cancelled the kill on the remaining season is going to go up.

Posted by clintharvey on December 09

The DNR is run by the same individuals with the same ideals as always, add in a director who has done very little, heck he got the job because he was a politician (which automatically ties his hands).  They told us we are on own for management, so be it. This will mark the 3rd year in a row on our property which we have not shot a doe and I believe it is finally starting to payoff with some increased numbers this year. (nowhere like it was).  The one downside to this is that I used to give 4 or 5 gun hunt invites a year to harvest a doe.  A local farmer, a buddy who did some maintenance and a couple of guys who just didn’t have a place to hunt.  Hopefully it will rebound to the point I can give those invites out again, but I don’t see it anytime soon. I wonder how many others lost a place to hunt for lack of deer.

Posted by BIGPOND on December 09

Firearm season harvest only:
Pike County is off 48% from the peak
Adams County is off 29% from the peak
Statewide off 30% from the peak, a drop of 37,021

The Illinois DNR would like to thank those 37,021 deer hunters that went home empty handed for their generous donation.

Posted by The Colonel on December 09

KC I love your stats and opinion.

However, what is the solution and what has the IWA done to help?

Posted by Gobble Gobble on December 09

Great article Kevin.

Posted by buckbull on December 09

HUNTINGHARD,IWA has developed a proposal based on setting harvest limits per county.  It still gives IDNR the flexibility to manage on their own statistics, but limits harvest in areas that are significantly below their agreed-upon population goal.  It also allows IDNR to keep herd-reduction strategies in counties still overpopulated.  Our main point is that all hunters, regardless of weapon, need to share in management.  IDNR is still operating under the assumption that gun hunters need to shoulder the entire weight of management.  Harvest limits across all seasons/weapons needs to happen in some areas.  Will IDNR adopt any part of it?  Who knows.  But IWA will continue to stand up for the interests of hunters, and hold IDNR accountable for their management actions.
I recently attended the Natural Resources Advisory Board quarterly meeting, and I’ve been invited to their upcoming February meeting to present our ideas.  We also have legislative meetings coming up soon.
If nothing else, I hope we’ve helped hunters better understand how the resource is being managed.  Until IWA started publishing data, we got nothing from IDNR.  They had managed the herd for several years on DVA data, and had never released any of that data to the public until after we called them out.  We’ll make sure IDNR is transparent as possible, and continue to provide insight into the data that IDNR won’t give.

Posted by Kevin C on December 09

Bravo Kevin C., I like the approaches.

Posted by Gobble Gobble on December 09

Kevin thanks for all your work.  You certainly opened my eyes to a lot of what the DNR is doing and I can’t help to think that without yours and IWA’s persistence things might be worse.  I’m certain we would have had more counties in LWS, until you exposed the data.  I’m sure a lot of what is going on is frustrating, but your work is appreciated by a lot of us.

Posted by BIGPOND on December 09

Bottom line is this… the firearm harvest increased over 13% during a period where we need the population to increase in most areas.  For the herd to grow, that means that we had to add substantially more deer than the extra that were taken out this season.  Did we?  How much would the herd have to grow to accommodate that 13% increase?  Does anyone feel confident that their herd can grow back to agreed-upon levels… by increasing the harvest by 13% in one year?
Also, like Clint pointed out… the weather this year has been pretty much ideal.  I know I wimped out a few mornings in November last year when the wind chill was -20 for several days.  A better indicator would probably be deer harvested per hunter-hours afield, as I’m sure the mild weather had to have higher participation rates.

Posted by Kevin C on December 10

I don’t know if it was a lack of deer previous seasons, property availability or less hunter participation but there were fewer trucks along the roadside than I ve seen in years. Another potential harvest inhibitor in my area was new landowners. Properties were shut down to hunting this year and deer were crawling in those properties like roaches.

Posted by chrismaring on December 12

I think we had a good year for fawns this spring, great weather and plenty to eat all summer.  It seemed like we were on the right track but pretty much the entire deer season has been ideal for the fair weather crowd who are normally on the couch once it hits 30 degrees.  Last year numbers were way down, weather was pretty crappy during peak harvest times as well as a diminishing deer herd.  Add the guys in who don’t feel the need to have atleast a little restraint regardless of numbers in their area and its a recipe for disaster.  If we have drought conditions with another spike in EHD this year in some areas the deer will be gone.  I understand some areas are blessed with good numbers, good for those of you who have them but numbers in other places won’t be able to take another hit.
Numbers are bound to better than last year given the circumstances and how bad last year was.  It’s apples to oranges comparing this year to last.

Posted by Andy Meador on December 12

Those touting the great conditions for the first shotgun season were NOT above Peoria.  While the 20th was a good day, the next two days were not.  From US 34 north had reported 7-10” of heavy, wet snow. followed by cold temperatures and wind.  Despite the wet snow, it drifted, with many state roads down to one lane and some country road impassable.  Numerous branches came down and many areas were without power for up to 13 hours.
We lost one ground blind, totally destroyed by the heavy snow. While cleaning off my truck on Saturday, a BLOCK of frozen snow dropped from an adjacent tree, hitting me like a brickbat.  While I’ve always loved hunting anything after a fresh snow, bad knees and more intelligence than I had in my youth kept my party out of the timber.  I think the kill, which I think was up for 1st season, would have been substantially higher had the weather cooperated.
While I didn’t go second season, I saw very few in hunting clothes.  Same went for this muzzle-loader weekend.  This is not an uncommon occurrence, as I’ve seen the same lack of participation after 1st season since I moved here, 30+ years ago.

Posted by riverrat47 on December 13

RR that sucks.  Didn’t know you guys had that kind of weather.  We had maybe 1/2” of snow in Macon county.

Posted by Andy Meador on December 14

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