History of Management
Prior to 1700, the first conservation law for what is now Illinois was made by the French, prohibiting the felling of trees which was necessary for the construction of forts.
Early to Middle 1800s
Historic accounts note that furs sent out from the various posts upon the Illinois River included 10,000 deer, 300 bear, 10,000 raccoon, 35,000 muskrat, 400 otter, 300 pounds of beaver, 500 cat and fox and 100 mink, having a total value placed at $23,700. During this time period, a 60–100 pound whitetail sold for $1 in Edwards County, and hides were sold for 50 cents each. During the early 1830s, a venison ham normally sold for 25 cents and two pounds of venison sold for a penny in Pike County.
Elk had disappeared from the Illinois landscape, but deer were “more abundant at this time than when the country was first settled” (Rahn, 1983). The cost for a fresh venison ham increased in range from 37 cents to 75 cents each.
With the development of Illinois railroads, populations of wildlife in general began to dwindle as swamps were drained, timber was cut, and prairie soil was plowed and planted.
The 19th General Assembly passed the first real game law. The law read, “It shall be unlawful for any person to kill any deer, fawn, prairie hen or chicken, quail, woodcock or wood partridge between the first day of January and the 20th day of July each year in the counties of Lake, McHenry, Boone, Winnebago, Ogle, DeKalb, Lee, Kane, DuPage, Cook, Will, Kendall, LaSalle, Grundy, Stephenson and Sangamon.” A penalty of $15 for each deer or fawn illegally killed and $5 for each other violation was established.
The game law was rewritten making it illegal to sell game during the closed season. The act was applicable only to 44 northern counties and Sangamon County.
A severe, cold winter, coupled with a deep, hard snow blanketed the Midwest, and thousands of deer and buffalo were shot or trapped, supplying the markets of principal cities with bountiful game meat.
Middle to Late 1800s
The Natural History Society of Illinois (parent organization of the present Natural History Survey), was organized at Illinois State Normal University. The Illinois Natural History Society was chartered by an act of the General Assembly and given the purpose of preparing “a scientific survey of the State of Illinois in all the departments of natural history.”
Judge John D. Campbell began maintaining a penned herd of 20–25 deer near Polo (Pietsch, 1954). At the judge’s death in 1910, they were given to a farmer near Polo where they were released into the wild. It is commonly believed that deer from this captive herd initially repopulated areas in the northern section of Illinois at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Illinois legislature prohibited the killing of any deer in the state between January 1 and August 15.
This was the last occurrence of deer in northern Illinois, according to Aldo Leopold in his Game Survey of the North Central States (1931).
The first “Game Wardens” were hired in 1885 to enforce the state’s natural resource laws. The governor appointed a warden for the Chicago, Peoria, and Quincy areas.
Deer numbers in the Midwest, and generally throughout North America, were at their lowest. Illinois, along with 15 other states, mostly in the eastern and midwestern regions, considered their herds at “near zero.” In 1890, T. X. Palmer of the U.S. Biological Survey (antecedent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) estimated the wild white-tailed deer population of the U.S. and Canada to be around 300,000 (Trefethen, 1970).
Conservation measures were enacted to protect deer and their habitat. States began to impose additional limits on the number of deer taken and limits on the length of seasons. The practice of fence–to–fence cultivated fields with no edge was detrimental to the whitetail throughout the Midwest.
By federal law, the Lacy Act of 1900 banned interstate shipments of game killed in violation of state statues, and market hunting became illegal.
Illinois imposed a “temporary” moratorium on deer hunting to last five years so the populations could recover and increase. Rather than increase, however, the population continued to decline throughout the state. For all practical purposes, the white-tailed deer disappeared from Illinois. The “temporary” closure lasted 56 years.
The Office of the State Game Commission was established. Resident and non-resident hunting license requirements were set up for the first time. Land acquisition was begun at Fort Massac, which would become the first state park in Illinois.
A herd of 10–12 deer escaped from a penned enclosure when a severe storm blew a tree upon a fence. Mr. George Stevens of Kishwaukee built up the herd after obtaining a doe in the late 1800s and purchasing a buck from Judge John D. Campbell.
The first state-operated game farm in the United States was established at Auburn, Illinois.
Ernest Thompson Seton, a well-known naturalist of the day, estimated the deer population east of the Mississippi River to be 500,000 (Trefethen, 1961).
Although undoubtedly some deer remained in the state’s woodlands and bottomlands, deer were rarely seen in 1912. Cory, in his book Mammals of Illinois and Wisconsin listed the whitetail as “… probably extinct in Illinois…” In his personal correspondence with C.J. Boyd of Anna, Boyd cited that a few remaining deer at the southern tip of the state in Union and Alexander counties (Cory, 1912).
The State Legislature established the State Fish and Game Commission, hoping to reduce friction between the two separate commissions and lead to better efficiency. This Commission did not have extensive powers or operate very efficiently. Amid charges of hiring “rabbit shepherds,” the Commission was later disbanded.
The Illinois Fish and Game Conservation Commission stated, “At the present time there are a few deer in the southern part of the state. Occasionally a bear is seen in the wild bottom lands of the Mississippi River, but neither of these animals are of sufficient consequence to the state to require much consideration at the hands of the Commission. Deer are protected, and in those parts of the State where there is sufficient woodland to attract these animals, they are likely to multiply. But we may never expect to see deer plentiful in the State of Illinois.”
Governor Frank Lowden created nine executive departments, with the Department of Registration and Education housing a Board of Natural Resources and Conservation to administer the Scientific Surveys. The Surveys enjoyed remarkable expansion during the first half of the century and were widely respected and patterned throughout North America. The Division of Fish and Game was established as part of the Department of Agriculture.
Fish and game laws underwent drastic revisions in 1923. The Department of Conservation was created in 1925. The State began to purchase land around Horseshoe Lake in Alexander County in 1927 to establish the first Wildlife Refuge in Illinois.
As deer were practically absent from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, southern Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, northern Missouri, Kentucky, southern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and much of New York, the Illinois Department of Conservation began actively translocating whitetails.
Repopulation of Deer in the Midwest
The first reported release of deer, one buck and three does, occurred in southern Illinois at the Horseshoe Lake Game Refuge (Leopold et. al., 1947 and Pietsch, 1954).
Three does and two bucks obtained from the Michigan Department of Conservation were released by the U.S. Forest Service in the Shawnee National Forest in Pope County.
Four deer from the Mt. Vernon Game Farm were released in Union County near Jonesboro. A pair of whitetails obtained from the Mount Vernon Game Farm were released on the Savanna Army Depot (Carroll County near Savanna; a census conducted in Carroll County in 1950–51 found a population of approximately 100 deer), followed by releases of a doe from the Springfield Game Farm in 1937 and a buck in 1938 (Pietsch, 1954).
Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, an excise tax on arms and ammunition returned to states based on the number of licensed hunters and size of the state.
The statewide deer population was estimated to be 500.
The Horseshoe Lake Refuge deer herd (one buck and three does transplanted to area in 1933) had increased to 250. Efforts were taken to trap and translocate deer to keep the herd to a level of 150. Conservation Officers reported in 1947 that deer had been observed in 45 of Illinois’ 102 counties.
A Rockford deer herd was reported to be considerably large, and doing heavy damage to the woods. (Leopold et al, 1947).
From the 1940s to the 1960s, deer were live trapped from Alexander County (Horseshoe Lake Waterfowl Refuge) and from Ogle and Winnebago counties and transported to sites in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest. A 1941 article from the Department of Conservation’s publication Illinois Conservation reported that in a census of 15 species of big game throughout the United States, Illinois ranked 46th in the number of white-tailed deer (our only big game), with a total of 365 animals. The article stated that Illinois would like to have more deer, however, due to intensive agriculture and lack of large areas that are not populated, this would seem impossible.
From 1942 to 1953, nearly 439 deer were trapped on Horseshoe Island and Horseshoe Lake Game Refuge, with 433 translocated throughout Illinois. One hundred and fifty eight deer were trapped on the Rock River range, with 153 taken to southern Illinois (Pietsch, 1954).
Attempts were made to establish a deer census in Illinois between 1949 and 1951. In 1949, Conservation Officers reported that deer had been observed in 62 of Illinois’ 102 counties. By 1950 that number had risen to 68 counties and the statewide deer population was estimated to be 3,100. Fourteen deer trapped on Horseshoe Island Refuge were released in Fayette County in 1950 (Delich, 1989).
Conservation Officers noted the greatest number of deer occurred in north central Illinois around the Severson and Funderburg estates, with the second largest herd located in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois (Pietsch, 1954).
During the 1950s and 1960s, a block of counties in east central Illinois were the last to report deer sightings. Black prairie soil in these counties was intensely farmed, and very little habitat was available to the deer for cover, browse, and areas to raise young.
Eleven deer were taken from the Springfield Game Farm and released in central Illinois counties. By 1953 deer were observed in at least 74 of Illinois’ 102 counties.
Between 1956 and 1962, 61 does and 26 bucks were translocated from the Union County Refuge and released in Pope, Hamilton, and Macoupin counties.
The General Assembly granted permission to a Game Code change which would allow whitetail hunting in Illinois.
The 1957 Hunting Season:
October 1–15: A total of 2,617 bow and arrow hunting permits were issued with 220 deer harvested.
October 1–31: Bow and arrow hunting was permitted in Union County and Horseshoe Lake refuges. Shotgun hunters were permitted on refuges November 1–3 if bow hunters failed to harvest quota.
November 1–3: There were 8,941 paid hunter and 1,109 free landowner permits issued for shotgun (with slug) hunting with 1,735 deer harvested.
Many newspaper reports of the day cited John Force of Chandlerville as the first person to legally kill a deer since 1900 when he bagged a 200-pound male with bow and arrow at 7 a.m. on October 1, 1957.
In the 1960s, three years after the implementation of the first modern-day hunting season, the Illinois statewide deer population was estimated to be 19,195.
Deer herds in Pope County were severely depleted due to gross overhunting against the advice of professional biologists. To accelerate deer population growth in eastern Illinois, whitetails were trapped in the northwestern part of the State in 1962 and released in Iroquois County.
Deer were trapped on the Savanna Army Depot (Carroll and Jo Daviess counties) and transported to various areas in and out of Illinois; others were taken from Adams and LaSalle counties and translocated to various sites.
A 1965 governmental study commission created by the General Assembly recommended that a Department of Natural Resources be established. Its nucleus would be the existing Department of Conservation, to which would be added the Surveys and the Division of Waterways. The commission noted that Governor William Stratton had submitted the same reorganization plan in 1959, but the Legislature did not approve this plan.
The Illinois statewide deer population was estimated to be 25,000 with the lowest average number of deer per square mile of 0.44 compared to the next lowest Midwestern state, Ohio, with 0.55 deer per square mile. The most populated was southern Wisconsin at 7.85 (Nixon, 1968).
The Department of Conservation began historic partnerships with the federal government to manage land at the new reservoirs at Carlyle, Shelbyville, and Rend City.
Deer were translocated to Pope County following overhunting in the early to mid 1960s.
53 deer were taken from state-owned parks and released in Pope County.
The Department of Conservation opened five regional offices in Rock Falls, Spring Grove, Champaign, Alton, and Benton.
Illinois schoolchildren selected the white-tailed deer as the state animal, a recommendation the Illinois General Assembly approved in 1982. The Big Buck Recognition Program began in 1982.
Deer hunting seasons were significantly modified due to a statewide increase in negative deer-human interactions. The firearm season was lengthened from 6 to 7 days, a 3-day muzzleloader season was added during December, and 3-day antlerless-only season was added during January 1992. Antlerless-only permits for both gun and bow hunting were offered for the first time, and biologists emphasized the need to harvest more female deer in order to control population growth.
Illinois’ 1991 deer harvest (all seasons) exceeded 100,000 for the first time.
The first Conservation Congress was held to allow interested parties (i.e., stakeholders) to be formal participants in the Department’s decision-making process and help provide solutions to common problems.
Effective July 1, 1995 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was created through the consolidation of the Department of Conservation, the Department of Mines and Minerals, the Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council, the Department of Transportation’s Division of Water Resources, and the Illinois State Museum and Scientific Surveys from the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources.
In 1995, deer hunters were able to purchase archery deer permits over-the-counter from license vendors throughout the state. Each over-the-counter archery permit consisted of one either-sex permit and one antlerless-only permit in an effort to increase the issuance of antlerless-only tags.
Firearm deer harvest exceeded 100,000 during the 1995 7-day season.
For the deer archery season a limit of two antlered bucks was adopted to alleviate hunter concerns about the buck age ratio.
Firearm deer hunters were limited to two either-sex permits for all gun seasons to make gun regulations more comparable to archery regulations.
For all 1998 deer seasons, a limit of two antlered deer was implemented replacing the separate limits on archery and gun hunters.
A quota was placed on the number of nonresident archery deer permits to be sold, which was equal to the number of permits sold in 2000 (12,843). An antlerless-only youth deer season added in 2001 to some counties.
The first Illinois case of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was discovered in a wild Boone County deer. The western portion of Kane County was opened to firearm deer hunting in 2004.
The nonresident archery quota increased to 15,000.
A new automated harvest reporting system was implemented that allowed deer hunters to register their deer harvest using either telephone or the Internet rather than at a check station (with a few exceptions).
The total deer harvest exceeded 200,000. A new special Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) deer season was implemented to combat CWD in select counties.
The handgun season was changed to a “late winter” season, allowing use of any legal firearm in January 2005.
The nonresident archery quota was increased to 20,000.
Hunters with unfilled permits for the firearm season or muzzleloader season were allowed to use permits during the late winter deer season to harvest antlerless deer so long as the permit was issued for a county open to that season.
The single either-sex archery deer permit (previously available only to residents) was discontinued, but a single antlerless-only archery permit was available over-the-counter without limit to both residents and nonresidents.
The antlerless-only youth deer season was changed to statewide either-sex season in 99 counties. Amid concerns that IDNR was not doing enough to control Illinois’ deer population, in 2007, and according to House Joint Resolution 65, the General Assembly created the Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control.
Persons with unfilled permits for the youth season were allowed to use permits during late-winter season to harvest antlerless deer so long as permit issued for an open county.
The Illinois General Assembly passed legislation mandating that the quota on nonresident archery deer permits be at least 20,000, and IDNR set the quota at 25,000.
The legislative Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control submitted recommendations on deer management to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director. The recommendations included adopting new deer management goals, lengthening the late-winter antlerless deer season and archery season, and making various gun permits more readily available through over-the-counter sales.
House Joint Resolution 65 of the 95th General Assembly created the Joint Task Force (JTF) on Deer Population Control. The Task Force’s mission was “to examine and make recommendations on ways to manage the Illinois deer population.” The JTF met four times between April and October 2008, and conducted a series of six public meetings around the state to seek public comment about changes that were being considered. The JTF presented their recommendations in the Report of the Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control.
The JTF identified deer–vehicle accidents (DVAs) in Illinois as a primary concern. The number of DVAs is frequently pointed to as evidence of deer overpopulation. From 2001 through 2008, the number of accidents occurring each year throughout the state ranged from a low of 22,933 to a high of 25,847. Although the trend in number of DVAs during the five years prior to 2008 was not increasing, more recent accident numbers were considerably higher than during the 1990s when accident levels averaged about 17,000 per year.
In 2009-10 the recommendations of the Joint Task Force were implemented. The length of the late-winter antlerless season and special Chronic Wasting Disease season was increased from 3 days to 7 days. Because of the increased season length, check stations were discontinued for the special CWD season, and successful hunters began using the automated harvest reporting system. The archery season was extended statewide through the end of the late-winter season dates, essentially adding three more days. Youth and late-winter season permits were sold over-the-counter, and any firearm and muzzleloader season permits remaining after the lottery drawings were made available over-the-counter until the close of those seasons.
The IDNR established deer population goals for all counties based on the rate of deer-vehicle accidents and began making management decisions based on those goals.
Hunting license and deer permit fees increased for both resident and nonresidents. The cost of resident either-sex firearm permit rose from $15 to $25 (nonresident from $250 to $300); cost of resident firearm antlerless permits increased from $15 to $17.50 (nonresident from $15 to $25). Archery, youth and Chronic Wasting Disease season permit fees were unchanged. Nonresident youth were allowed to purchase a youth season permit for the same fee ($10.50) as resident youth.
The Chronic Wasting Disease season was expanded to all 10 counties where CWD had been detected through June 30, 2011. All newly added CWD counties were previously open to the concurrent late-winter deer season. Jo Daviess County was added to those counties having a manned Chronic Wasting Disease deer check station for the regular firearm deer season in November and December.
Ten counties were removed from the late-winter antlerless-only deer season (56 remain open). The first CWD-positive deer was discovered in a DuPage County; the animal was removed under a Deer Population Control Permit issued to the Forest Preserve District (the county is closed to firearm deer hunting). The Chronic Wasting Disease season was expanded to include Kendall County where CWD had been detected in July 2012. A regulation change no longer allowed nonresident archery hunters to purchase a combination permit after September 30 if they had previously purchased an antlerless-only archery permit.
The youth deer season was extended to include the Monday of the Columbus Day holiday weekend. Resident antlerless-only late-winter season permits were made available without limit over-the-counter in all open counties.
Twenty counties were removed from the late-winter antlerless deer season (35 remained open).