In my last column, I was telling you about the meeting I attended between representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, members of the Kane County Forest Preserve District and about 20 members of a citizen’s group calling themselves the North Rutland Deer Alliance.
The topic was supposed to be a discussion about the state’s chronic wasting disease control program, but the real theme concerned the widely-held opinion that there has been a drastic reduction in the population of whitetail deer in Illinois.
It’s not just the Rutland group that has that particular opinion, I hear it all the time and all over the northern part of our state.
Is it true? Are there fewer deer?
Well, the supposition is correct. There are fewer deer and that’s a fact that few will attempt to dispute.
The real question should be how much the population has decreased and what is the reason.
The ideal population density numbers for whitetail deer is 10 animals a square mile and 20 a square mile is a number that the scientists can properly manage.
In areas of Boone County, the recent numbers were between 80 and 90 deer a square mile.
Numbers like that can lead to crop devastation, landscaping damage, a high incidence of auto accidents and a negative effect on other species.
I said that the numbers are down in northern Illinois but a lot of people claim the whitetail population is teetering on the brink of extinction.
At the Rutland meeting, a woman said, “I live one mile from here. A few years ago, if you drove from here to my home, you’d see between 50 and 60 deer. Drive that way now and you’d be lucky to see four or five.”
I was astounded. Not by the decrease, but by the fact that she’d said you could that many.
To me, her number was beyond believable.
I asked her where the missing 46 deer had gone. I asked if she felt the IDNR had killed the missing deer.
She said she didn’t know why but that the deer were definitely missing.
Another man said he lived near a field where you could see between 80 and 100 deer at a time grazing and eating.
He said that now you’d be lucky to see two or three. Well, our area deer hang out in herds of 30, max, so I questioned his numbers, but still, I believed he was seeing fewer deer.
McHenry County residents are singing the same tune, and that tune is the blues.
I walked on property belonging to a few residents who said that the deer have gone missing. One man showed me a pair of apple trees sitting on his land. The trees were surrounded by at least a 150 ripe red delicious apples.
He told me, “This is only the second year since I’ve lived here that you can find apples on the ground. It used to be the deer would’ve eaten them overnight. This is too strange.”
Another man showed me a couple of tree stands on his property bordering a conservation area.
He said, “I’ve been out here nine evenings, so far, and I haven’t seen a deer yet. I used to see at least one every night, but now it looks like they are all gone.”
If you hear enough anecdotal evidence it can make you a believer.
I think that we have to start delving into the causes of this apparent lack of whitetail deer.
I talked about poaching a few weeks back.
Does it have an effect on the population?
There is more poaching than I’d previously thought.
I recently had the opportunity to ride with an IDNR officer.
Yes, there is definitely whitetail poaching going on but I don’t think it’s on the upswing and causing a downturn in deer numbers.
Everybody seems to believe that no one hunts in northern Illinois anymore because of the lack of available deer.
The facts seem to disprove that assumption.
The harvest numbers for the first weekend of shotgun season show that the harvest numbers for Lake, McHenry and Boone counties are slightly down from last year’s, and poor weather could be a factor.
As far as the archery harvest, so far the numbers are up for Cook, Boone, DuPage and McHenry counties and down in Kane and Lake counties, but only by about one percent.
Dave Kranz from Dave’s Bait, Tackle and Taxidermy in Crystal Lake operates a drop-off for people to check in their deer for processing at Rockford’s Smokehouse Venison.
“My business is up 20 percent over last year,” Kranz said. “Sure, I might be up because I’ve taken business from other processors, but I am sure the numbers are strong just on the basis of excellent hunting activity.”
Hall of Fame outdoorsman Spence Petros told me, “I think that the high rate of hunting pressure has made the deer more nocturnal.
“You used to see them in the morning and the evening and sometimes all day long. I think the hunters have educated them to make their moves in the dark when the hunters aren’t allowed to shoot them.”
Kranz told me, “I think their diet has changed the last two years. We’ve had a huge acorn crop lately. The deer being harvested have bellies full of acorns. I think we aren’t seeing the deer because they aren’t leaving the woods to eat. There’s plenty of food in the woods. You just have to change where you are putting your stands to find the deer. The IDNR is eliminating some animals and I think they are doing it for the right reason, but there are still plenty of deer around.”
There is compelling evidence that shows that the northern Illinois whitetail population is far from being eliminated, but there is indication that the average deer available may be smaller than what we used to see walking the woods and fields. We’ll take a look at that later.
• Northwest Herald outdoors columnist Steve Sarley’s radio show, “The Outdoors Experience,” airs live at 5 a.m. Sundays on AM-560. He can be contacted at email@example.com.