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Is Illinois Facing a Deer Dilemma?

PHOTO: Some conservationists are warning that the increasing deer population is having a profound impact on the ecosystem, even changing the composition and structure of forests. Photo credit: Dcoetzee, via Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Some conservationists are warning that the increasing deer population is having a profound impact on the ecosystem, even changing the composition and structure of forests. Photo credit: Dcoetzee, via Wikimedia Commons.
December 10, 2013

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - You could call it a deer dilemma; while the ungulates are beloved by many in the Prairie State, conservationists warn that without better management, deer will wreak havoc on forests and farms.

According to Jeff Walk, director of science for the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, with a lack of natural predators, deer have become abundant in Illinois and the Midwest, and as a result, there's been a lot of economic and ecological damage.

"Farmers are seeing a lot of deprivation of crops and, in our natural communities, we see a lot of deer browse of some of the trees and understory plants in our forests, and it's really changing the composition of the next crop of trees that's going to take over our forests," he warned.

Walk said people have very strong feelings on the subject: they either want more game animals to hunt, or consider it cruel to kill deer. While there's no easy answer, Walk said, all sides in the deer population debate will have to compromise to find the best solution.

He remarked that deer management is a complicated, challenging issue for state wildlife agencies trying juggle conflicting interests.

Those include ideas "from the general viewing public who likes to see deer, but they don't like to hit them with their cars. And then from the agricultural community, who would like to see less deer damage to cropland; but then, balancing that with the interest and the economics generated from hunting."

Walk said it's a hard reality for some to face, but hunting is the most effective way to control the deer population. And while others suggest more humane ways, such as birth control for deer, he says it hasn't been successful.

"So many individuals would need to be treated: they may need to be treated repeatedly, perhaps annually," he cautioned. "And then, it's just a very expensive proposition compared to the alternative of deer hunting, which is actually an economic generator."

He said relocation is also not a viable option because of the logistics of trapping, the stresses of transporting the animals, and the potential for spreading wildlife diseases or parasites.

In recent years, Illinois reduced its deer population by about 14 percent, in part by using sharpshooters to target deer afflicted with chronic wasting disease.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IL