The Illinois Whitetail Disaster

By Don Higgins
AHT Guest Commentary

I am blessed to have watched the whitetail herd in my part of Illinois rise from nothing to become the greatest whitetail herd on planet earth. As a kid running the creeks and woods of east-central Illinois we basically had no deer whatsoever. Seeing a deer track was newsworthy and announcing such a discovery was more likely to bring ridicule than belief.

Author Don Higgins with several Illinois giants from years of hunting the Land of Lincoln

Author Don Higgins with several Illinois giants

Then, slowly at first, the deer started to appear. When I shot my first buck back in 1979 I only knew of three men who had taken a deer and two of those were harvested down in southern Illinois.

Back in the early days Illinois was blessed with a couple of cutting edge whitetail biologist who were ahead of their time in their approach to state-wide whitetail management. Forest Loomis and Jack Calhoun micro-managed Illinois growing deer herd county by county utilizing county check stations manned by college students and started a new management approach that other states would soon adopt; either-sex hunting.

Up to this point, states that allowed deer hunting managed their seasons by larger zones or even state-wide and only allowed bucks to be harvested. Loomis and Calhoun put Illinois on the fast-track to whitetail stardom with their hands-on approach to managing Illinois most precious natural resource. These pioneer biologist deserve way more credit and recognition than they have been afforded.

Soon whitetails were at huntable populations in every Illinois county. Not only that but with the management approach of these cutting edge biologists, the state enjoyed a whitetail herd with great age structure and proper sex ratios. By the mid-1980s Illinois was home to a whitetail herd that would please any deer hunter. Monster bucks were present in suitable numbers in every county for those seeking the challenge while a growing population meant plenty of opportunities for the meat hunter as well. Illinois became the destination of choice for whitetail addicts from across the globe.

Then disaster hit. No, it didn’t hit with the force of a tornado that was obvious and clear to see. In fact many didn’t even realize anything happened. But it did. And it was bad. Loomis and Calhoun retired and some time following a new whitetail biologist was hired. Paul Shelton was a waterfowl biologist from Tennessee when IDNR director Brent Manning hired him to come to Illinois and oversee the greatest whitetail herd on earth. Shelton was noted for his “computer models for waterfowl management” and apparently the idea was that he could bring this experience to Illinois and use it on our beloved whitetail herd. The problem is that whitetails are not waterfowl and in the past 20 years Paul Shelton has yet to figure that out.

Today the Illinois deer herd is in serious trouble and Illinois deer hunters are finally seeing it. Most are blaming two straight years of massive deer die-offs from EHD as the culprit. They are only partially right. Today’s deer herd disaster is the result of 2 years of EHD and 20 years of bad management. The quality of Illinois deer herd has been slowly trending downward for some time but the casual deer hunter didn’t see it and most wouldn’t even acknowledge the possibility … until this year.

With a firearms season harvest that was down 25% statewide and archery harvest figures likely to mirror those of the gun seasons, eyes have been opened and voices raised. The thing is, most of those who are finally upset have no idea how bad things really are. The “harvest” may be down roughly 25% since last year but the “herd” is really down more like 70% in some areas. On top of that, if you compare this year’s firearms harvest to that of 2005, it is actually down 40%. If you think the deer hunting was off this year, mark my words, the worst is yet to come.

IDNR biologist Paul Shelton and his cohorts John Buhnerkempe and Tom Micetich are in over their heads and yet have never worked under a DNR director with the guts, motivation, desire or wisdom to rein them in and get them on track. Current director Marc Miller seems to be no different. Team Shelton has destroyed the great deer herd nurtured to life by Loomis and Calhoun, yet I am not sure if that fact is as sad as having a string of IDNR directors without the concern for Illinois deer herd to insist that the management of our deer herd get back on track. I find it frustrating and more than a bit odd that Illinois fish biologists do an awesome job of managing Illinois waters for quality fishing with well-designed regulations such as creel limits and size limits, yet our whitetail biologist manage our deer herd like high-school drop-outs using $1.99 Wal-Mart calculators.

I personally was at a meeting in Decatur a few years back where John Buhnerkempe was telling a group of hunters about the approach they take to manage Illinois deer herd. Buhnerkempe said that they simply look at the herd numbers at the beginning of the season and set a goal of how many of those deer they want to be killed by the end of the hunting season. He went on to explain that they don’t care how those deer are killed or which ones are killed, they just want to get the herd down to a specific number. I’m serious folks, that is Illinois’ whitetail management approach in a nutshell. No regard at all is given to setting regulations that will improve sex-ratios or age structure. Nope, just go out and kill X number of deer. What’s worse is they can’t even do this right as evidenced by this year’s dramatic drop in harvest. They are so slow to react to changes within the deer herd that calling them “reactive” rather than “proactive” is too kind. It takes them years to even address a problem and never really admit that there was a problem to begin with. Again, mark my words, we haven’t seen the worst yet.

This leaves us with the obvious question of “where do we go from here?” Personally I hold out almost no hope that we will ever again see a deer herd of the quality that we once had. I have heard a couple of older hunters note that we still have more deer today than we did in the early 1970s so we can turn things around and have a good deer herd again in a few years. Let me give you three reasons why this won’t happen.

First and foremost we had Loomis and Calhoun in charge in the early 1970s whereas today we have Shelton, Buhnerkempe and Micetich. The former were clearly cutting edge pioneers whereas I have seen absolutely nothing from the latter to hint that they even care about the resource that they are in charge of managing. On top of this IDNR director Marc Miller has shown me nothing to indicate that he will step in and insist that the ship be righted. Strike one.

Secondly we have a lot more deer hunters today than we had during the 1970s. I would venture to guess that we probably have 4 or 5 times as many deer hunters now as compared to then. That represents a lot more pressure on a resource that now needs to be expanded rather than simply maintained at current levels. On top of that we now have a younger generation of deer hunters who do not remember the days when we had so few deer that a hunter would typically go years between deer harvests. Most of today’s deer hunters have always hunted during a period when they could easily kill multiple deer each and every year. It won’t be easy, and will likely be impossible, to get this group to accept a more limited role as true conservationists. Strike two.

Finally, Illinois politics will never allow for the proper management of our whitetail deer herd. Besides the fact that hunters themselves cannot agree on what is best for the herd, we also have to throw in the wishes of groups like insurance companies who want all the deer gone and are willing to fork over the bucks (pun intended) to see that their opinion carries plenty of weight with politicians who make key decisions regarding the management of our deer herd.

Let’s face it, IDNR director Marc Miller is simply in his position because he was appointed to be there by Governor Quinn. It is no secret that Illinois politics is a dirty business and Marc Miller is really nothing more than a puppet whose strings are being pulled by someone else. Strike three.

In a perfect world the management of big game herds is left to qualified professionals. That is what created the Illinois deer herd that was truly the best deer herd on the planet. Loomis and Calhoun loved what they were doing and did so without politics tying their hands. The Shelton gang has clearly demonstrated that not only do they not know what they are doing with regards to deer management; they also don’t seem to care. Illinois politics is simply the final nail in the coffin.

Loomis and Calhoun left us the greatest whitetail herd of any state in the nation as their legacy. Now it’s Shelton and Millers turn to leave theirs. Just as decades later I remember and reminisce about Loomis and Calhoun, so too will others someday do the same with Shelton and Miller. Shelton created this disaster and this is clearly his legacy. IDNR director Marc Miller didn’t create this mess but he clearly came on board in time to turn it around. He didn’t. Instead he went along with status-quo and the wheels came completely off the bus under his watch. Shelton won’t do anything to right the ship, I am certain of this.

From what I have seen from Miller, I don’t really expect him to do anything significant enough to make a real difference either. Mark my words, we haven’t seen the worst. I just hope that 30 or 40 years from now someone remembers the names Shelton, Micetich and Buhnerkempe as the ones who destroyed the world’s greatest whitetail deer herd just as clearly as I remember Loomis and Calhoun as the ones who created it.

About the Author
Don Higgins is a freelance outdoor writer from Shelby County, Illinois who has had articles published in just about every major outdoor magazine. Don has also authored 2 books on hunting whitetails and operates Higgins Outdoors, a multi-faceted company specializing in wildlife habitat consultation and creation. He can be reached through his website – www.higginsoutdoors.com

DonsBookCoverScreen shot 2014-01-02 at 8.46.11 PM

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