Springfield — Even though he’s new to the role, Stan McTaggart isn’t about to sugarcoat his forecast for the fast-approaching upland game hunting seasons.
“Hunters are going to have to work harder for the birds and rabbits,” McTaggart, who last month replaced Mike Wefer as DNR’s ag and grassland wildlife program manager. “Aside from the ongoing habitat issues we have in Illinois, we’ve also dealt with several wet springs in recent years, which cuts into nesting.”
That said, it’s not all gloom and doom. There seems to be an uptick in hunter interest. During the 2012-13 pheasant season, an estimated 17,427 hunters took 29,396 pheasants. That’s nearly a 42 percent increase in hunters and an almost 7 percent increase in birds. The numbers don’t pan out all positive, however. Pheasant hunters averaged only 0.48 pheasants per day, a 16 percent decrease from the 2011-12 season.
DNR reported that 11,266 quail hunters harvested 47,175 birds last year, an 11 percent decline in hunters but a 1 percent increase in the number of birds taken. Quail hunters averaged 0.90 quail per day.
Rabbit harvest, on the other hand, experienced a steep decline. An estimated 33,093 hunters – a surprising 2.6 percent increase – harvested 116,552 rabbits. That harvest was a whopping 25 percent drop from the 2011-12 season. The average of 0.77 rabbits per hunt was a 32 percent decline.
The 2013-14 upland hunting seasons open Nov. 2. The only change this year is that the rabbit season will extend until Feb. 15. Pheasants and quail can be hunted until Jan. 8 in the north zone and Jan. 15 in the south zone.
McTaggart is focusing on improving habitat in order to bump up quail, pheasant, and rabbit populations. The philosophy shared by many biologists and hunters is that the only way to bring hunters back to the sport is to provide plentiful game for them to hunt.
“The key to getting more hunters interested and to keep hunters we have interested is having bird and rabbits for them and their dogs to chase,” McTaggart said. “People want to point to predators and other things, but it really comes down to habitat.”
Following is a breakdown on the status of each upland species compiled by DNR and Illinois Natural History Survey staff.
During this year’s quail survey conducted during the peak mating season for bobwhites (June 10-July 10), observers recorded an average of 0.71 quail per route on 54 survey routes. Quail were recorded at 34 percent of the stops. Both the number of quail counted and the number of stops where quail were seen or heard were slightly higher in 2013 than during 2012 surveys.
Last year’s drought and relatively mild winter contrasted with a wet and cool spring this year. Cooler than average temperatures and above average precipitation were prevalent during the quail nesting season.
“This likely had a negative impact on nest success for many birds,” McTaggart said. “But dry conditions followed in the summer, and that may have allowed some late nesting or re-nesting birds to successfully fledge broods later in the summer. That has yet to be determined.”
The most productive quail regions continue to be the south-central and west-central parts of the state. Hunters that have access to good habitat should still enjoy a successful season.
During the spring surveys taken during the peak breeding window for pheasants (May 10-June 10), observers recorded an average of 0.13 pheasants per route on the 54 survey routes. Pheasants were recorded at 9.8 percent of the stops. Both the number of pheasants counted and the number of stops where pheasants were seen or heard were lower in 2013 than during the 2012 surveys.
Like quail, cooler than average temperatures and above average precipitation affected the peak pheasant nesting season. This likely had a negative impact on nest success for many birds. And, like quail, dry conditions later in summer may have allowed birds to re-nest.
The most productive areas for pheasant hunting continue to be in east-central and northern Illinois.
Since 1975, DNR has monitored the state’s rabbit population by using counts of road-killed rabbits counted in June and July. The summer 2013 road-kill index was 2.2 rabbits per 1,000 miles travelled. The difference between this year’s and last year’s rabbit indices – roughly 4 percent – is not considered statistically significant.
The most productive areas for rabbit hunting continue to be in west-central and southern Illinois.
Based on the average annual harvest estimates from 1997 through 2012, some of the top counties are Bond, Calhoun, Clay, Clinton, Madison, Marion, and Wayne.
A bigger concern to wildlife officials is the drop in interest in rabbits. A little over a decade ago, there were 82,000 rabbit hunters in the state, according to INHS surveys. The roughly 33,000 hunters in 2012 represents a drastic decline.