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2013 Deer Decline Prompts Bowhunter Action

One of the major concepts lost on animal rights extremists, and even many non-hunters in general, is just how passionate bowhunters and other sportsmen can be about protecting—and growing—our game animal resources. And when those resources are threatened? History has shown that sportsmen don’t wait to act. Sitting smack-dab in the middle of the latest case-in-point this spring are many dedicated bowhunters including Les Davenport, accomplished whitetail expert and frequent Bowhunting World contributor.

Normally a fairly even-keeled guy, Davenport these days is riled up. In fact, he’s outright incensed by what he and a small dedicated group of whitetail hunters believes is mismanagement of a fast-shrinking Illinois deer herd by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. And by all accounts, many sportsmen—stretching across many hardcore whitetailing states—are feeling much the same way about the current state of their state’s waning deer herd.

At first blush it’s easy to see the frustration. The fall of 2013 made headlines across the Midwest and beyond, as greatly reduced, year-over-year deer harvest totals (both gun and bow) were posted by at least seven key whitetailing states.  Among them were eye-popping declines in Illinois and Iowa (18 percent), and Missouri (23 percent). Worse, it seems most involved states have been slow to pinpoint concrete-solid reasons for the reductions, or inspirational plans for rebuilding.

A theme that continues to resonate is that deer herd reduction efforts that began in many states in the early to mid 2000s were not halted after the plans, which included large increases in doe permits, had effectively done their job. The hows and whys? Those are quite a bit more complicated. They include a litany of political issues, among them strong lobbyists representing farmers and insurance companies who favor smaller deer herds. Add the fact that a string of unusually warm years has likely been the catalyst for an increase in deer diseases and subsequent mass die-offs, and you have serious potential for trouble. Big trouble. A perfect storm, if you will, of deer decline.

If there’s a silver lining to such somber news, some shimmering slices may be the fact that groups like Davenport’s have decided to act. Davenport is one of the five-member Illinois Whitetail Alliance, which formed Feb. 1. The group, which has kept its membership small to expedite its mission, also includes Kevin Chapman, president and legislative liaison for the Illinois Bowhunter Society; Don Higgins, outdoor writer and habitat consultant; Brent Manning, past director of the Illinois DNR; and Lee Mitchell, wildlife biologist. You don’t have to look hard to see the group brings some serious credentials.

“Our main goal is to turn around the management of deer in Illinois, to be proactive rather than reactive, to consider all of the variables,” Davenport said. “Last year, the DNR said we lost 17 percent of our herd, but [the IWA] thinks we lost 49 percent of our herd, and we might even be low.”

Instead of the IWA merely grousing about what it considers a drastic decline, Davenport explained that the group has taken the time to hammer out a detailed, carefully considered five-point plan for deer herd reform—several points of which the group believes can be implemented in time to impact the 2014 season. They include greatly reducing the doe harvest and enacting a five-year moratorium on any regulation change that could increase the overall deer harvest.

In Minnesota, avid bowhunter Brooks Johnson formed the Minnesota Deer Density Initiative last December in an attempt to mobilize like-minded state sportsmen: those who believe the state deer herd is simply too low and needs immediate boosting. Minnesota posted a reported 7 percent decline in deer harvest in 2013—overall the lowest in 15 years—but Johnson believes the herd, in some areas, has recently declined up to 70 percent.

“The goal is to share information and inadequacies and wrongdoings that got us to where we are, to try to get enough people [inspired] to lobby for [deer management] change,” Johnson said. “At this point, I don’t know what else to do.”

Meanwhile, both the Illinois and Minnesota state DNR offices have been far from silent. In a recent release the IDNR says it plans to revise deer population objectives for more than 40 counties beginning with the 2014-15 deer season, following a two-year review of Illinois deer management. “In these counties our strategy is shifting from deer herd reduction to maintaining or increasing deer populations,” said IDNR Director Marc Miller.

In Minnesota, the state DNR began a three-year process in February to determine whether deer populations around the state should be increased, decreased, or left the same. The plan includes citizen advisory panels that will make recommendations to the DNR.

Like the IWA, the MDDI believes that disgruntled hunters who are unfocused and disorganized cannot expect to enact meaningful change, which is really the beauty of both organizations, and the primary takeaway, at least at this point, for concerned bowhunters everywhere. When it comes to truly meaningful change, both aforementioned organizations offer bowhunters a stronger collective voice more apt to be heard by the right influential people.

“[This is] not all the IDNR’s problem, it’s hunters, too,” Davenport said. “Hunters can be so opinionated they never seem to get on the same page. We tend to think too much about ourselves and not enough about the resource. We need to forget about our differences and think about the resource. We want to stir the hunters up; [the IWA has seemingly] put a lot of deer hunters on the same page.”


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