Facing a shrinking budget and public backlash, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is considering changes to its current chronic wasting disease control efforts, including the use of sharpshooters to reduce deer numbers. Hunters in northern Illinois couldn't be happier.
"I hunted every day for 11 days straight and never saw a single deer," said Illinois Bowhunters Society Regional Director Jim McFarlane. "It's been terrible."
A lifelong Illinois resident, McFarlane said efforts to control the disease have led to a deep divide and a serious breach of trust between the deer hunting community and the IDNR. He and other hunters wonder why the state has to use hired guns when hunters themselves would be more than willing to step in. Last winter, sharpshooters killed 1,475 deer in the 10 counties known to harbor the disease and nearly 11,000 since control efforts were undertaken in 2003. Up to 28 percent of local deer populations were killed by sharpshooters.
"We want hunters to go in first. If they can't get the job done then let sharpshooters take over," said McFarlane, a 61-year-old engineer from Rockford. "A lot of the sharpshooting efforts are taking place in forest preserves and parks that don't allow hunting. That's their excuse. Why can't they let us in? Someone is going to be killing deer. Our taxpayer money is going to this when we could be doing it for free."
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease that was first discovered in captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967 (it's not transmissible to humans). Since then, it's been found in wild and captive deer, elk, and moose in 19 states and two Canadian provinces. CWD was first detected in Wisconsin in February 2002 and was the first known appearance east of the Mississippi River. Eight months later, biologists in Illinois detected it in Winnebago County. Since then, the state has tested about 58,000 deer, with 336 testing positive.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director of Resource Conservation Jim Herkert said lower deer numbers are just one of the consequences of trying to control CWD. Along with sharpshooting efforts, the DNR relaxed bag limits, which allowed hunters to take unlimited antlerless deer during the 108-day archery season, among other measures.
"We do know that if we draw back our control efforts, we will see an increase in the prevalence of the disease. That's happened in other states. There is a pretty clear trade-off," Herkert said.
But at what cost, wonders McFarlane. He admits his experience with low deer populations are purely anecdotal and don't reflect the entire northern Illinois hunting community. However, he's heard similar reports from numerous other hunters, particularly those hunting in areas close to the sharpshooting efforts. So has Dave Wiehle, 70, who also lives in northern Illinois. Once supportive of the efforts, he has turned into an outspoken critic of the DNR's efforts, calling the agency's culling efforts "mass murder."
"I have a friend who gave the DNR permission to come onto his land to shoot some deer for sampling. He told them not to shoot bucks because he manages his land for quality deer, but they did anyway," Wiehle said. "The DNR basically destroyed any relationship it had with hunters in this part of the state. The DNR is broke, the state is broke, they raised license fees on us, and now they are using hunter's money to exterminate the deer herd. Deer hunting is big business in this state, and the DNR is doing everything they can to ruin it. They tried the same thing in Wisconsin, and they had to stop it because everybody got so pissed off."
The CWD efforts in Illinois were indeed similar to those in Wisconsin. Soon after the disease was discovered there, the Wisconsin DNR instituted what was known at first as an eradication effort in the region with the highest prevalence. Sharpshooters began shooting every deer they could in an effort to slow the spread of CWD.
"In hindsight, eradication was the wrong term. The public viewed it as an effort to eradicate deer," said WDNR Assistant CWD Coordinator Tim Marien. "We changed it to a control and surveillance effort."
Despite the change, the WDNR ended the sharpshooting program in 2007 due largely to negative public reaction. The hunting community remains suspicious of the WDNR, which hired a public relations company to help smooth out the differences. Things are even more contentious in Illinois. Wiehle said he doesn't know of any hunters who support the DNR's efforts to control the disease. He attended a public meeting held by the DNR last winter that turned into a heated debate between hunters and DNR personnel.
"There were a couple hundred people there. Not one spoke in favor of the DNR or the CWD work, except the DNR employees," he said. "The time to take another look at the CWD program has long passed."
Even non-hunters have had enough.
Last February, Winnebago County officials voted to ban the DNR from any more
sharpshooting efforts within the county. A citizen-led effort to end culling efforts in Dundee Township, however, was defeated 49 to 44 by a popular vote at a township board meeting in April. The board voted last December to allow DNR personnel to shoot 20 deer from a local nature preserve but met strong resistance from hunters and non-hunters soon after the effort started.
McFarlane isn't opposed to efforts to control CWD or even efforts to knock down local deer numbers. However, what bothers him is that there is a clear disconnect between the agency in charge of managing wildlife and the hunting community. Herkert said his agency is planning to survey area residents to get their take on the disease and the efforts to control it by the DNR, something McFarlane said should have happened long ago.
"We don't know how many people are opposed to what we've done in relation to CWD," Herkert said.
What do you think? Should state wildlife agencies enlist the help of sharpshooters to curb the spread of CWD?