Illinois’ deer hunters, farmers enjoy beneficial relationship
Champaign, Ill. — Although relatively few farmers in Illinois hunt deer, it’s fair to argue they play the most important role in controlling the state’s herd.
To wit: when farmers feel there are too many deer, they do something about it. And hunters tend to be the ones who benefit.
“Who owns all the huntable private property here?” Mark Alessi asks, rhetorically. “The state has very little public hunting land, and many times it’s a farmer who is the one who decides if a deer hunter will have a place on private [property] to hunt deer in the fall.”
Alessi, Human Dimensions research coordinator for the Illinois Natural History Survey, teamed with other researchers to compile a study on Illinois farmers’ perceptions of deer and their relationship with deer hunters. The study was conducted in 2011 and followed similar studies in 1982 and 1990.
Among the findings was the fact that a majority of hunters enjoy having deer on their property – until they start to notice damage to their crops caused by those deer.
“About 70 percent say, ‘yes, we love deer’ but that changes when the corn gets eaten,” Alessi, who sent an eight-page survey to 5,000 farmers. INHS received back 2,706 of the surveys.
Along with stated purposes of the study, the INHS team was also able to capture interesting opinions farmers have about the state’s deer population. For example, 51 percent of Illinois farmers perceived an increase in deer density on their farms over the past five years, and 82 percent of those same farmers favor a decline in the deer population during the next five years.
Those perceptions have changed since the 1982 study, mostly because the state’s deer herd has grown over the 30-year period.
“In places like east-central Illinois, there were few deer around in the early 1980s,” Tom Micetich, deer program manager for DNR, explained. “Farmers may have started to see a few more by 1990, and then these days, they seem to be everywhere. So for farmers there, it really does seem like a population explosion.”
Few hunters picked up a gun or bow to take care of deer problems themselves, the survey indicated – roughly 71 percent of farmers indicated that they did not hunt deer during the 2010-11 deer seasons.
But those farmers did permit friends and family to hunt deer on their property. Alessi thought an interesting question to ask farmers who did allow access to hunters whether or not they imposed restrictions, such as what gender or size of deer could be harvested.
“About 16 percent of farmers who permitted deer hunting access imposed harvest regulations upon the hunters, of which minimum antler size and harvesting a doe before a buck were the most frequent,” Alessi said.
Deer hunters harvested an average of 2.2 does and 1.6 bucks on farmers’ properties during the firearms season.
As for deer population concerns in the state, farmers have not been sitting on the sideline. In 2007, the Illinois Farm Bureau formed a Wildlife Management Working Group. Among the recommendations in that group’s 2008 report were the rewriting of the state’s wildlife nuisance program, the development of a hunter-landowner clearinghouse and an increase in the number of hunting permits and over-the-counter permits
“The Farm Bureau supports hunting and trapping, and we have policies on wildlife management,” Nancy Erickson, natural resources director for the IFB, said. “Our members do enjoy wildlife. But they are also trying to make a living and help feed the world. It gets to a point, when crops and property are being damaged, when something has to be done.”
Farmers in the survey estimated deer caused approximately $1,500 per capita worth of damage to their property.
Erickson said that there are liability concerns when a farmer allows a hunter access.
“It’s like letting a guy into the living room of your house – what can you be held responsible for?” she said.
Other interesting facts from the farmer survey:
- Of farmers who reported damage on their farm, 56 percent thought the enjoyment of deer on their farm did not offset the damage done by deer.
- Most frequently damaged crops were corn and soybeans, with a higher proportion of farmers indicating their corn had moderate damage (41 percent) than any other crop types.
- Between 20-32 percent of farmers had attempted to reduce or prevent deer damage, depending on the region in which their farms were located. The most widely-used method for deer control was “encourage more hunting.” Eighty percent of farmers who encouraged more hunting deemed it effective.
- Access granted to hunters depended on the region of the state. For example, 87 percent of farmers in Region 5 (deep southern Illinois) allowed access, while 57 percent in Region 2 (northeastern Illinois) allowed access.
Trespassing a concern
Illinois farmers’ biggest aversion to allowing access to deer hunters is the issue of trespassing and unethical behavior, Alessi pointed out.
“All it takes is one bad experience with a hunter, and a farmer easily sours on opening up his land,” Alessi said. “I think that should motivate hunters to do the best they can to be responsible. One bad egg can really ruin it.”
According to the survey, 65 percent of farmers have not experienced any problems with deer hunters on their farm. Of the farmers reporting problems, 78 percent of the problems involve trespassing.
“I think what the survey says is that most farmers like deer on their land, but not too many deer, and they rely on hunters to keep the deer herd controlled,” Alessi said. “For the hunters, we all know there is limited access to hunting property in Illinois, and farmers hold the key to much of the access.”
Which brings the issue full-circle.
“That relationship between farmers and deer hunters is important for both, and it is very delicate,” Alessi.
Alessi said results of the farmer-deer survey will be shared with DNR and other wildlife agencies.