Squirrel hunting rebound possible
Springfield — What an age it must have been: summer months 60 years ago featured newspapers excitedly counting down the days until squirrel season and hunters confidently preparing.
And there were lots of hunters.
According to DNR records, in 1956 the state sold 553,000 resident hunting licenses – the most ever and twice as many as today.
“These days people are running kids around to soccer and kids are doing this or that, but almost every kid I knew back then was either fishing or target shooting and talking about squirrel hunting,” said Paul Meyers, a 71-year-old retiree from rural Jacksonville. “We were like trainees. The first step to becoming a hunter was to learn to squirrel hunt. Then you would hunt rabbits in winter. You’d spend days and days reading magazine articles about hunting.”
As the 2016 squirrel hunting season nears its Aug. 1 opening day, it’s clear fewer hunters – especially young hunters – are taking to the woods. But DNR and others with an interest in the future of hunting are hopeful a turnaround is afoot.
According to the Illinois Natural History Survey’s hunter harvest report from the 2014-15 season, 45,092 hunters spent 288,321 days in the woods and harvested 245,894 fox squirrels. There were 342,297 gray squirrels taken.
After years of steady decline, hunter participation and harvest shave been up for both species each year since 2012.
Fewer hunters overall
The state sold 278,546 resident hunting licenses in 2014-15, a mere 1 percent decrease from the 281,399 sold in 2013-14 – but nearly half of the 553,000 sold 60 years ago. Forty years ago, in 1976, the state sold 458,000. A dramatic decline took place over the next 10 years and by 1986, only 311,000 were sold.
Evidence shows that lack of interest in small game hunting has contributed heavily to the decline in hunting license sales – as has lack of access to hunting ground. Some of the evidence is anecdotal, but some of it comes from information gathered by annual INHS surveys.
The 2014-15 INHS report reveals that many of the state’s older hunters had their first experiences in the fields and woods years ago chasing small game like squirrels and rabbits.
But it also notes that a large majority of Illinois hunters – young and old – did not hunt small game during the 2014-15 hunting seasons.
Findings in the INHS report:
• Eighty-seven percent of Illinois hunters have hunted small game in the past. These hunters reported that the most hunted small game species during their first year of hunting were rabbit (71 percent), and squirrel (65.3 percent).
• More than half of the state’s squirrel hunters are in the southern part of the state. According to the survey, there were 15,105 fox squirrel hunters in Region 4 and 12, 661 in Region 5 during the 2014-15 season.
• Hunters accessed private land most often to hunt small game; 56.4 percent hunted private land owned by someone else, followed by 24.6 percent who hunted their own land.
• Over 75 percent of small game hunters felt that small game populations had decreased.
A push for youth hunters
Recognizing lack of interest by youth hunters, the state has taken some steps to encourage participation.
A new law that went into effect this year pushes the maximum age to obtain a youth hunting license from 16 to 18.
The law authorizes anyone age 18 and under to hunt without having first passed a safety course as long as the youth is with a licensed hunter who is 21.
The state sold a little over 12,700 youth hunting licenses last year.