The Illinois Whitetail Disaster By Don Higgins 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. 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.