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Spending the opener with the second all-woman staff at an Illinois deer check station

Perspectives and encouragemens came from the McHenry County check station on opening day of Illinois’ firearm deer season.

Resize/Sun-Times
Autumn Sellek, 10, watched intently as wildlife biologist Stefanie Fitzsimons sampled a deer brought to the McHenry County check station on Nov. 22, opening day of Illinois’ firearm deer season.
Dale Bowman

Autumn Sellek edged closer as wildlife biologist Stefanie Fitzsimons cut a deer’s neck to gather a sample to test for chronic wasting disease.

“If this isn’t grossing you out, you should be a biologist,’’ Fitzsimons said.

She meant it.

Hunters had a down year in Illinois’ first firearm deer season (Nov. 22-24), taking only 50,173 deer compared to 58,836 in the first season of 2018.

On opening days, I visit check stations. In the 17 counties with positive results for CWD, successful hunters need to bring their deer to check stations during the two firearm seasons.

This year, I went to the McHenry County station, headquartered out of a federal government surplus trailer at McHenry Dam Day Use Area. With WLS-FM rocking the background, Fitzsimons (McHenry, Kane and Lake counties) and wildlife biologist Emma Trone (Macoupin, Christian, Fayette, Montgomery and Bond counties) staffed it.

“Not very big in here, but it’s home for three days,’’ Fitzsimons said.

It was the first all-woman check station I had seen. Fitzsimons said last year she and Nicky Strahl, the hunting heritage biologist for northern Illinois, were the first all-women crew that she knew.

When Fitzsimons started in 2014, she was the lone female wildlife biologist. Then Strahl came along. Next was Megan Dassow of Gibson City. Trone started in January and Beth Weber started recently at Savanna.

Procedure at two-person check stations is standard: one is the cutter, the other collects data.

The cutter does the gross work. If a hunter gives permission, a sample is taken. The neck is slit so the cutter can access the brain stem and lymph nodes, which are extracted with tweezers and put in numbered Formalin specimen containers to be sent to the University of Illinois for testing.

The cutter also cuts off a chunk of tongue (at least one inch) for DNA testing. Fitzsimons said the meatiest portion is important because the center is best for DNA.

The cutter also ages the deer by checking the teeth (baby teeth, emerging teeth, tooth wear). The oldest deer checked in at McHenry on opening day was a 4½-year-old buck shot by Don Ellis.

Resized/Sun-Times
Wildlife biologists Stefanie Fitzsimons (back) and Emma Trone (right) check in a deer at the McHenry County check station on opening day of Illinois’ firearm deer season.
Dale Bowman

Fitzsimons was the cutter, Trone the date collector.

“She was one of our sharpshooters last winter, so she knows procedure,’’ Fitzsimons said. “So I am having her do data. If you don’t do the data correctly, Paul Shelton gets real mad at you.’’

Shelton was the long-time deer biologist and is now the wildlife programs section manager.

The data collector gives successful hunters their deer pin, asks what type of firearm was used, obtains a phone number, asks if any bobcats, turkeys or wild hogs were observed and for the location of the kill on a map, if a sample is taken.

Only one hunter refused to give a sample.

“I feel like they are doing a better job of educating people,’’ Fitzsimons said.

She’s absolutely right. When I started monitoring check stations on opening day, the refusal percentage was much higher and angrier. People are learning how important Illinois’ management program is in containing CWD.

“I love this graphic,’’ Trone said pointing to the page taped to the trailer window showing how much lower the CWD rate is in Illinois compared to Wisconsin, which is rapidly approaching the point of no return in hot spots.

Trone has shown particular interest. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Western Illinois. At the end of October, her thesis, “Differential gene expression in chronic wasting disease-positive white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus),’’ was published in Ecology and Evolution.

Of the 35 deer checked in opening day, 26 were sampled. The five fawns brought in could not be sampled (tissue must be at least a year old to sample) and three deer being mounted were maybes on being tested after going to the taxidermist. Fitzsimons gave her contact information to the three hunters with mounts and noted that most processors/taxidermists would work on getting a sample.

It takes about eight weeks after samples are given in firearm seasons to determine if a deer had CWD.

“If you get a call from me, I am like the Grim Reaper,’’ Fitzsimons said.

Hunters with deer that test positive are encouraged not to eat the venison.

There’s a reason that it takes so long. One person, clinical professor Richard Fredrickson Jr., reads the tissue slides, so individual bias is avoided.

In the afternoon lull, Fitzsimons loaded an Instapot — Freddie Mercury and David Bowie “Under Pressure” decorating the sides — to make “Beef Stew with Stuff Dumped into It.’’

The cooking made the trailer home.

Minutes before the 8 p.m. close, Jason Tibbs put the exclamation point on the day with a wide-spread 15-pointer, his buck of a lifetime.

Second firearm season opens Thursday and runs through Dec. 8.

For a breakdown of harvest in first season, go to https://chicago.suntimes.com/2019/11/27/20985225/young-man-lives-magical-moment-illinois-first-firearm-deer-season-low-harvest.