Illinois deer hunting: Taking a shot at the meaning of the 2020-21 harvest numbers

Divining the meaning behind the numbers of the record harvest by Illinois bowhunters and the spike in overall deer harvest.

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The generalized use of crossbows is at least a contributing factor to the back-to-back record deer harvests by bowhunters in Illinois. Credit: Dale Bowman 

The generalized use of crossbows is at least a contributing factor to the back-to-back record deer harvests by bowhunters in Illinois.

Dale Bowman

Two numbers stood out when deer harvest by Illinois hunters in the 2020-21 seasons came out. For the second straight year, Illinois bowhunters set a record for deer harvest: 75,544 compared to 67,743 in the 2019-20 season. More significant, archery harvest nearly matched the harvest during the two firearm seasons (76,579).

That rise in archery harvest led the spike in overall harvest in ’20-21 to 162,575 deer from the 153,174 in ’19-20.

I went over some of the numbers and their meaning with Dan Skinner, forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

First, overall numbers and the pandemic.

“Based on our preliminary data, it looks like we saw a harvest increase of a little over 6% over the 2019-2020 statewide harvest totals,” Skinner emailed. “To put that into perspective, from 2010-2020, our average change in harvest [whether up or down] from one year to the next was about 4.65%. So the change was a little higher than average and could very well have been an effect of more hunters afield in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic. More analyses will need to be conducted to see if we can dig a little deeper into that.”

The view from the deer blind during Illinois’ firearm deer season; the view of overall harvest by Illinois deer hunters in Illinois shows harvest was up. Credit: Dale Bowman

The view from the deer blind during Illinois’ firearm deer season; the view of overall harvest by Illinois deer hunters in Illinois shows harvest was up.

Dale Bowman

I suspect, like many others, that allowing general use of crossbows has fueled much of the increase in archery harvest.

“Based on our preliminary data, the harvest breakdown by bow type was a virtual tie this year between compound bows at approximately 49.5% and crossbows at 49.3%,” Skinner emailed. “For the 2019-2020 archery season, that split was closer to 54.1/44.8. I would be hesitant to make any predictions on this year alone, but we are certainly interested in running some additional analyses to get a better look at what’s going on with archery harvest, especially that crossbow component.

“Are we bringing older hunters back who had stepped away from archery hunting? Are we attracting young hunters? Are hunters who had recently been harvesting deer with firearms now doing so with crossbows instead? Are archery hunters harvesting deer earlier in the season with compound bows or traditional archery equipment, then switching to crossbows later in the season? These are questions we will be interested in answering when we have our harvest data cleaned up.”

Other states also are going through general use of crossbows, so more data are building across the United States.

Because of the pandemic, no check stations at the northern counties with chronic wasting disease (CWD) during the firearms seasons were held. Check stations allow biologists to check deer on the spot.

“In recent years, we would obtain between 2,500 and 3,000 CWD samples from check stations alone,” Skinner emailed. “In 2020, our check stations were closed, and while the Department still made many sampling locations and head drop-off sites available to hunters, it would appear that most deer harvested during the firearm seasons in CWD counties were not ultimately sampled for CWD. We did see an uptick in submissions at taxidermists and meat processors, but not enough to make up for the losses as a result of our closed check stations. . . . [Our total number of deer sampled this year will be considerably less than recent years. With our recent change in testing laboratories and procedures, however, those hunters who had their deer tested are receiving their test results much faster than in previous years, and we expect these quick turnaround times to continue into future hunting seasons.”

I love check stations as gathering stations for hunters as much as for sample and data collection.

“Time will tell, but, yes, it is our hope to have CWD check stations in place again for the fall 2021 firearm deer hunting season,” Skinner emailed. “Ultimately, this decision will be made by the IDNR in conjunction with the Governor’s Office and public health officials. The location data and test results we receive from check stations are invaluable in the fight against CWD, but our primary concern has always been, and will remain, the safety and well-being of Illinois hunters and the hardworking employees of the IDNR.”

Coming out of the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 deer seasons, the hope is deer check stations will be open again in 2021 during firearm seasons in CWD counties. Credit: Dale Bowman

Coming out of the pandemic-impacted 2020-21 deer seasons, the hope is deer check stations will be open again in 2021 during firearm seasons in CWD counties.

Dale Bowman

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