The poor deer harvest during the recent 2013-14 hunting season has Illinois lawmakers demanding answers -- and action.
State Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, said members of the legislature's downstate caucus -- comprised of both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate -- have met with Department of Natural Resources managers on the issue.
"We're going to try to do something to increase the deer population," Costello said. "What we're trying to do, in conjunction with DNR, is to find a way to realistically manage the deer herd to a number that makes sense."
In 2008, a legislative task force concluded that deer overpopulation "is rampant in some counties in Illinois, causing accidents on our highways, increasing crop damage for Illinois farmers, and making it easier for disease and starvation to afflict our deer populations."
As a result, DNR set out to reduce the size of the state's deer herd by about 14 percent, through hunting regulations, season lengths and the number of deer permits issued.
"What DNR is telling us is that we may have overshot the management goal, the number that we were going for," Costello said.
The deer harvest for 2013-14 was 148,569, a substantial drop from the harvest of 180,811 in 2012-13. The record harvest is 201,209, set in 2005-2006.
Monty Hoffarth, manager at Town Hall Archery in Belleville, said almost all of his customers were grumbling this year about not seeing many deer in the woods.
"I heard a lot of complaints about low deer numbers," Hoffarth said. "They were saying it was way down."
Costello said DNR likely will tweak the deer hunting seasons and regulations in order to increase the herd size.
"I would expect a reduction or possibly elimination of the late-season antlerless, and a possible reduction in the unlimited doe-only permits," he said.
DNR spokesman Chris Young said the agency has not yet decided on any specific changes.
"We're still waiting for some numbers to come in from the Department of Transportation (on deer-vehicle collisions). Usually the deer harvest numbers and the deer-vehicle accident numbers mirror each other, but nobody can say anything for sure until we get all the data in and our biologists have a chance to look at everything," Young said.
DNR Director Marc Miller has said the agency will be looking to increase the deer population in some counties.
"The IDNR manages deer by county and state population goals, and as a result of our two-year review we're making changes for many counties. In these counties our strategy is shifting from deer herd reduction to maintaining or increasing deer populations," Miller said. "I am committed to professional management of our wildlife, and as always, we want to hear from hunters, landowners, and all other stakeholders on our deer management program."
DNR biologists have determined that some counties' deer populations can be increased, particularly in counties with smaller deer populations, while still meeting the statewide herd reduction goal. Biologists have identified 41 counties for which IDNR can adjust season regulations and permit quotas to reflect these higher population goals.
Among those 41 counties are Washington, Marion, Clinton, Bond, Jefferson and Fayette.
A few counties with high volumes of vehicle traffic, including Madison and St. Clair, are not being considered for higher deer population goals. Other counties where no changes in population goals are being considered include Perry and Randolph.
Information about DNR's revised deer management goals is available here: http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/wildlife/Pages/DeerOpenHouse.aspx.
Hoffarth, at Town Hall Archery, isn't sure that the hunting-season lengths and permit quotas are solely to blame for the lower deer numbers. He believes a chief culprit could be epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.
"Personally, I believe it's disease. When you hear people saying they're finding four or five or six bucks dead on their property for no apparent reason, it has to be disease," Hoffarth said.
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at email@example.com or 239-2511.