If it seems like there are more deer in Illinois now than there were before, that’s because there are.
There was a time when white-tailed deer, the state animal, were considered an endangered species but after 200 years of taking the proper steps, Illinois was able to rehabilitate it’s deer population to near overpopulation.
“What started out as a temporary moratorium ended up lasting over 50 years,” said Illinois Department of Natural Resource Wildlife Program Manager Dan Skinner. “From 1901 to 1957, with the return of our modern deer hunt, there was no white-tail deer hunt. At the same time, the Illinois State Game Commission was releasing deer from other areas to try and regrow the population.”
When Illinois was initially settled by the French, they’d made quite a few conservation efforts to prevent deforestation and limit fort construction but those efforts were ignored after the French lost control.
“When white settlers arrived in Illinois early in the 18th century, deer were common here, but probably not numerous,” wrote Lysle R. Pietsch in a 1954 study titled “White-Tailed Deer Populations in Illinois.” “At that time the native vegetation consisted largely of extensive areas of two basic types of plant communities, the prairie and the hardwood forest.”
Pietsch said the edges where the forest met the prairies were where deer were found in large numbers.
The 1850s saw deer and buffalo populations decrease throughout the Midwest, and even though Illinois legislators put a law in place in 1853, outlawing the hunting of deer to protect the population. A brutal 1855-56 winter led people to ignore the law because they needed food.
Throughout the rest of the 1800s, Illinois lawmakers tried to enforce laws that restricted hunting but the population didn’t seem to be recovering; Aldo Leopold of the Illinois Game Survey, an organization created in 1917, wrote in 1931 the last instance of deer in Northern Illinois occurred in 1874, although there were still deer kept in pens across the state.
The state purchased land around Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County in 1927 and used the property as a wildlife refuge, bringing deer in from other parts of the country then moving them to other states seeing the same need for a deer population.
Proper and well-enforced protection went a long way towards rehabilitating the deer population and by 1940 the nearly non-existent deer population was up to 500 statewide.
Limited hunting was allowed again in 1957 after the deer population was properly recovered at a reported 3,100 known.
There were more than 10,000 hunting permits given out in 1957 with more than 1,735 deer killed, including a 200-pound buck killed with a bow and arrow by John Force of Chandlerville. The 1960s passed with a population of 25,000 deer before it exploded during the next 20 years, hitting 100,000 in 1990 and forcing the state to open up hunting seasons even further.
The state extended firearm season from six to seven days, added a three-day muzzleloader season in December and allowed for a three-day antlerless deer season in January of 1992.
In 1995, there were more than 100,000 deer killed and that still wasn’t enough to stem the booming population. In 2005, 200,000 deer were harvested but today, the population sits at around 660,000 and fluctuates around there.
“(Population) increased from 1901 onward until it hit its high point in 2007 or 2008,” Skinner said. “We had a record harvest in 2005. It got to the point where people realized there were too many deer on the ground.”
Skinner said there were complaints of damage and people were hitting deer with their car, so the Illinois General Assembly created a task force that recommended the use of deer vehicle accident rate to keep track of what hunting numbers should be, rather than just using the population.
The deer vehicle accident rate has gone down on average across the state, even though a few counties have seen it go higher.
Skinner said Chronic Wasting Disease is currently the biggest threat Illinois deer face as it makes its way across 17 counties in Northern and North Central Illinois, including La Salle County.
“It’s a 100% fatal neurological disease and it’s unlike any other disease we’ve tried to manage because it’s caused by a misshapen protein called a prion,” Skinner said. “It can withstand high temperatures, low temperatures, UV lights and it can be transmitted from deer to deer or picked up from a contaminated environment.”
Skinner said they’re expecting a population decline of around 10% because of the disease.