History of Deer Management in Illinois

Even into the 1970s, it was not that common to see deer in Illinois. White-tailed deer numbers have increased substantially during the past 25 years.

Click on the image to view the large version.

Reports during the early 1800s indicate that deer were more abundant than when Europeans first began settling the area. The population grew in response to reduced pressure from predators, as people eliminated wolves and cougars, and from an increase in available edge-habitat as forests were cleared to make way for agriculture. The large numbers did not last long. White-tailed deer were virtually eliminated from Illinois by the late 1800's due to over-hunting, the lack of hunting seasons and regulations, and intensive land use changes.

Prior to the 1950s, occasional escapes and releases of deer from privately-owned preserves, translocations conducted by the Illinois Department of Conservation (currently IDNR) and the United States Forest Service, and possibly immigration of deer from adjacent states led to the reintroduction of white-tailed deer in Illinois. Even into the 1970s, it was not that common to see deer in Illinois. However, the high reproductive potential of healthy white-tailed deer, their ability to rapidly colonize suitable habitat, and favorable land use practices resulted in a rapid increase in deer numbers and distribution statewide.

By 1950, white-tailed deer were known to inhabit 68 Illinois counties, and 33 counties were opened for deer hunting in 1957. By 1976, every county except the four counties in the Chicago metropolitan area (Cook, DuPage, Kane, and Lake) were opened to firearm deer hunting. In 2004, the western portion of Kane County was also opened.  

The numbers of white-tailed deer have increased substantially during the past 25 years. This population increase has been mirrored by increases in annual hunter harvests and hunter success rates. Hunters harvested record numbers of deer every year during the 1980s while (firearm) hunter success appeared to stabilize at 45-47 percent. During the 1980 firearm deer season, 20,700 deer were harvested by 75,800 permittees statewide compared to a peak harvest of 123,792 deer with 329,940 permits in 2005. Projections based upon population trend data indicate a stable to slightly declining statewide population from 2004 through 2008.

A large deer population provides ample opportunities for those who enjoy watching, photographing, or hunting white-tailed deer. Unfortunately, higher deer numbers statewide have also contributed to increased deer-vehicle accidents. Reported accidents involving white-tailed deer peaked at 25,847 in 2004 and since then have been in slight decline to 24,212 in 2008. This type of deer-human interaction is probably most pronounced in the four highly urbanized counties in northeastern Illinois, with Cook County ranking highest among Illinois counties in the number of reported deer-vehicle collisions on state highways. Additionally, deer may pose a threat to human safety when allowed to reside on airport properties and to wander unimpeded onto active runways.

Deer dispersal movements can result in deer appearing in areas of high human activity including urban centers and fenced compounds. Reflections in windows can cause deer to jump into and through windows in much the same way birds collide with reflections in windows. In areas of high deer density, deer can also cause extensive agricultural losses; damage to nursery and orchard stock, ornamental plantings, cemeteries, and golf courses; and the loss of natural vegetation that negatively impacts important ecosystem functions.

Due to the increase in negative deer-human interactions statewide, the Illinois deer hunting seasons were significantly modified during 1991. The firearm season was lengthened from 6 days to 7 days, a 3-day muzzleloader season was added during December, a 3-day antlerless-only handgun season was added during January 1992, an additional antlerless-only archery permit was made available, and emphasis (via permit allocation and public education) was placed on the need to harvest more female deer. Beginning in 1995, deer hunters were able to purchase archery deer permits over-the-counter (OTC) from license vendors throughout the state. Each OTC archery permit consisted of one either-sex permit and one antlerless-only permit, in an effort to increase the issuance of antlerless-only tags. No limit was placed on the number of permits that an individual could purchase, but in 1996 a limit of two antlered bucks was adopted to alleviate hunter concerns about buck age structure. The OTC archery permit program has resulted in significant increases in doe harvest during archery seasons. An antlerless-only youth deer season was added in counties with “surplus” deer in 2001; and was changed to a statewide, any deer season in 2007. The handgun season was changed to “late-winter” season allowing the use of any legal firearm in January 2005, and use of unfilled previous fall’s firearm/ muzzleloader permits beginning January 2007.

Joint Task Force recommendations were implemented in 2009. These recommendations included: 1) expanding the late-winter season to 7 days (adding 4 days in late-December/ early-January), with OTC permits available in open counties as “limit 1” or “unlimited” based upon doe harvest needs, 2) adding 3 days to archery, concluding with late-winter season, and 3) adding OTC permit issuance for youth, Chronic Wasting Disease deer seasons, and firearm/ muzzleloader permits remaining after random daily draw period were made available OTC, up to county quotas.

Deer harvest quotas have been, and will continue to be, set on a county-by-county basis.  A county is the smallest unit (with the exception of public sites) that the IDNR has the data or personnel to manage effectively.  Allowable deer densities must be based upon biological as well as social and economic considerations, must be determined on a site-specific basis but in a regional context, and must be continually evaluated over time.