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Declining deer harvest a big issue in Illinois

Hunters in Illinois once again found themselves staring at woods and fields with far fewer deer. It was the biggest story in Illinois outdoors in 2014. | Dale Bowman/for the sun-times

Hunters walk their deer ideas from the tunnel vision of their stands to a worldview.

From the prism of individual views came the biggest story in Illinois outdoors in 2014: ‘‘What the hell is wrong with the deer?’’ The historic collapse of the number of deer harvested by Illinois hunters in the 2013-14 seasons looks as though it will be nearly mirrored in the 2014-15 seasons.

In the 2013-14 seasons, hunters harvested 148,569 deer, down 17.8 percent from 180,811 in 2012-13. There was a 25.3 percent drop in firearm harvest, from 99,546 in 2012 to 74,318 in 2013.

Many factors swirled into the perfect storm. Back-to-back drought summers in 2012 and 2013 brought outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (likely higher than the official counts of several thousand dead deer). Then came the historic winter of 2013-14, which limited hunter effort. More needs to be known about predation, especially by coyotes on fawns. The most changeable factor is the hunting effort sanctioned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources after the decision by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Deer Population Control in 2008 to reduce the deer herd.

The IDNR tweaked a few regulations for the 2014-15 seasons: Late-winter antlerless-only deer season is closed in 20 additional counties, either-sex permits were reduced by 4,925 and antlerless-only permits were cut by 6,375.

Harvest numbers remain off so far. Firearm harvest rose slightly, from 74,318 in 2013 to 76,547 this year. Muzzleloader harvest was down slightly, from 3,485 last year to 3,444 this year. Illinois bowhunters had harvested 51,530 deer through last Sunday, compared with 52,888 at the

same time in 2013.

This fall, forest wildlife program manager Paul Shelton said he expected overall harvest ‘‘between last year and some of the higher harvests before then.’’ He projected a total harvest between 160,000 and 170,000 for the 2014-15 seasons. It might reach that.

The Illinois deer harvest peaked in 2005 (201,209) and ranged between 180,000 and 200,000 in the years after that until the collapse of 2013-14.

A point to note here: The deer herd isn’t in trouble; the debate is about hunter expectations for deer.

Illinois’ deer herd concerns me more as a citizen than as a hunter. Deer have significant economic value and value in the overall perception of Illinois as a destination (the drop in trophy bucks might have a long-term impact), but that is nowhere near the top of my concerns for the IDNR or the state.

For the IDNR, fracking regulations are far more important than whether the deer harvest goes back to its glory days of a decade ago. So are general-access issues for public recreation and public-land acquisition in a state that ranks 47th for public access.

That brings me back to tunnel vision.

Don Higgins had a guest blog Nov. 14 on HeartlandOutdoors.com that suggested deer hunters helped Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner.

‘‘While it would be impossible to say just how many votes were cast on the issue of Illinois’ pathetic deer management, make no mistake [that] the typical Illinois deer hunter did not cast a vote for [former Gov. Pat] Quinn in the election.’’

I’m sorry, but the deer harvest isn’t even close to being as important as bigger state issues. People who voted for governor because of deer management should lose their right to vote. We’re talking about a state that needs to redo basic financing, needs to redo pension funding and, morally, needs to restructure taxation and fund distribution

for education.

Sometimes it’s important to walk, literally and figuratively, back from the deer stand to the everyday world.