Deer harvest up, big changes looming

Springfield — If you ask the state’s deer hunters, DNR Director Wayne Rosenthal heads into his second year on the job with a single assignment.

Fix the deer herd.

Never mind that hunters increased the harvest by nearly 10,000 deer during the 2015-16 season – up to 155,130 compared to last year’s dismal 145,720. Hunters are expecting Rosenthal, who promised changes to the deer management program after being appointed DNR director one year ago, to follow through and address issues that have resulted in thinning populations and declining harvest totals over the past decade.

Under Rosenthal’s direction, DNR did make very minor alterations prior to the recent season. But one major change floated but not implemented was a bag limit for archery hunters. According to DNR, an online survey showed that hunters had broad interest in a bag limit, but Rosenthal wanted the agency to take a closer look. Thus, more questions about bag limits will be part of the  2016 DNR Deer Hunter Harvest Survey, which will hit mailboxes and inboxes anytime now.

Previous surveys have had mixed results. A 2013 online survey showed a regulation limiting hunters to one antlered buck was favored by 42.5 percent of hunters. More than 63 percent of hunters agreed with a limit of two antlered bucks. 

A separate survey that drew responses from about 7,500 hunters indicated that, by a wide margin, hunters considered the amount of disease in the deer herd and the overall health of the deer herd the most important considerations for DNR when setting goals for the size of the deer population. 

Most hunters in that survey (61 percent) considered the current harvest sex ratios to be acceptable and recommended they remain the same, while 31 percent of hunters felt that female deer should make up an even higher percentage of the harvest. Likewise, 57 percent of hunters believed that current harvest levels were acceptable and should remain the same.

2015-16 harvest details

The increase in harvest this season was significant (see charts below), especially considering that eight fewer counties participated in the late-winter season.

Bowhunters took 56,734 deer during the archery season, up slightly from the 56,076 harvested last year. Meanwhile, young deer hunters harvested 2,841 deer during the youth season, compared with 2,770 deer in 2014. Hunters using muzzleloading rifles harvested 2,375 deer during the 2015 season, compared with 3,471 in 2014. And the 2015-16 late-winter antlerless special CWD deer seasons concluded on Jan. 17 with a combined preliminary harvest total for both seasons of 6,344 deer, compared with a harvest of 6,761 deer taken during those seasons in 2014-15.    

The real improvement came during shotgun season, when hunters took 86,839 deer, up from the 76,575 taken last year.

Of the deer taken this year, 46 percent were female and 54 percent were male. 

More mature bucks

Illinois-specific numbers were not available, but the Quality Deer Management Association noted in its annual whitetail report that U.S. deer hunters are taking more mature bucks than 1½-year-old or “yearling” bucks for the first time in modern history.

During the 2014-15 hunting season, the percentage of yearling bucks in the national buck harvest dropped to a new record low of 33 percent, falling below the harvest rate for 3½-year-old and older bucks  for the first time since whitetail populations were restored in the mid-1900s.

“We’ve watched the harvest pressure on yearling bucks decline steadily from the extremes seen after restoration, and this resulted in climbing rates of mature-buck harvest as more older bucks became available,” said Kip Adams, QDMA’s director of education and outreach, who compiles the annual Whitetail Report. “However, the 2014-15 season will be remembered as the first where the two trends intersected and hunters took more mature bucks than yearlings.”

Categories: Hunting News, Whitetail Deer

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