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Not-so-white winter hinders annual Kane deer count

A small white-tailed deer keeps watchful eye along Sleepy Hollow Road Sleepy Hollow. 
March 21 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

A small white-tailed deer keeps a watchful eye along Sleepy Hollow Road in Sleepy Hollow. March 21, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 27, 2012 8:03AM



If you’re thinking a very mild winter and the recent May-in-March weather means those of us living near wooded areas will be inundated by deer this spring, give yourself a big old Homer Simpson, “Doh!” Pun intended.

According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources Urban Deer Specialist Marty Jones, while a good winter probably means a healthier deer population, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be more of them.

“They’re pretty hardy and can make it through all but the toughest winters pretty well. And there was a good acorn crop last fall, which helped sustain them through winter,” Jones said.

Furthermore, what the lack of snow does mean is that conservationists studying the state’s deer population didn’t have much of a chance to measure deer numbers.

Forest Preserve District of Kane County Wildlife Biologist Bill Graser said, “The mild winter impacted the ability of many agencies, including us, to conduct aerial surveys this winter. The warm conditions and lack of adequate snow cover didn’t allow it.”

Which means that without snow, the deer blended into their environment, which made them very difficult to spot.

The IDNR has been doing aerial deer surveys for about a decade or so in counties where Chronic Wasting Disease has been found. Chronic Wasting Disease was first recorded in Illinois deer in the Rockford area in 2002, Jones said, and that general area is still where its prevalence appears to be highest in the state, with it being recorded in 10 counties.

CWD is a infectious fatal disease which causes a deer to lose weight and literally waste away. Jones said Canadian scientists are working on a vaccine, but no cure has been found yet.

The Kane County Forest Preserve District has doing deer surveys at some of its properties since the winter of 2008 to observe trends in the relative abundance of deer at various sites and to identify where deer populations are high. The district also conducts vegetation sampling at several sites to assess the impacts that deer are having upon the flora.

More fawns?

Graser did note that the most likely way a mild winter can impact deer numbers is through increased reproduction.

“If females are healthier because of the mild winter, they are more likely to produce twins or even triplets. If this is the case, we might see increases in next year’s aerial survey numbers,” he said.

“If populations get too high, and their nutritional condition begins to decline, the result can be increased susceptibility to disease, and lowered reproduction and survival,” Graser said. “Once you reach this point, there is often severe damage to their habitat as well, which is a concern for agencies managing lands for the long term conservation of all species.”

Neither Graser nor Jones believes that if there are more deer there will be more fat and happy predators milling about the Fox Valley.

“The coyote is the largest predator in this area, and they are already widespread and abundant. They are highly opportunistic and eat everything from small mammals such as voles, mice, and rabbits, birds, white-tailed deer, and fruit. Coyotes are typically a predator of deer when they are fawns in this region, and if they are eating an adult deer it’s usually a roadkill, of which there is no shortage of in Kane County. What they eat varies by season and what’s available to them in their home range,” Graser said.

Graser noted that if there are more deer, in an area with a growing human population such as Kane County, there can be more deer versus car collisions.

“I don’t have the data for 2011, but in 2009 there were 361 deer-vehicle collisions in Kane County. In 2010 there were 325 deer vehicle-accidents here,” he said.

Human habitat

And if you think those deer milling about near Dundee Middle School in Carpentersville or hanging out on lawns on Barrington Avenue in East Dundee have grown used to being around people, you’re right.

“It is possible for deer to become habituated to humans,” Graser said. “When people feed them, and in suburban areas where there is little or no hunting, deer can become comfortable feeding in yards and living in closer association with humans.”

Graser said there have been rare cases where habituated female deer have attacked humans during the fawning season. Jones said that deer have given birth in some unusual spots including sandboxes, patios, football fields, sidewalks and on railroad tracks.

More deer also can mean crop damage for farmers and nursery owners and damage to landscaping and ornamental plants.

Jones noted that while deer find daffodils distasteful, they do enjoy tulips this time of year and always enjoy evergreens. To prevent damage, Jones recommended substantial fencing at least 4 feet high or repellents on the market that are specific only to deer. Dogs also can keep deer at bay, even feisty small ones.

In forest preserves and other natural areas, “When deer are too numerous, their browsing can negatively impact biodiversity and reduce the ability of rare plants to survive and reproduce. When browsing impacts the diversity and vigor of plants, it also impacts the other species that rely upon the plants for food and nesting cover,” Graser said.

As for the deer’s health, according to a reports available on the IDNR website, from fall of 2010 through spring of 2011, a total of 7,583 usable samples from wild Illinois white-tailed deer were tested for CWD and 42 positive deer were identified. The number of positive cases found in 2010-2011 was below the peak number of 51 found in 2003-04 and in 2005-06.

In 2010-2011, 21 of the CDW-positive specimens were from an area along the Winnebago-Boone county line from Wisconsin south into northwest DeKalb County. Four of the afflicted deer were found in Kane County.

More local testing

“The distribution of CWD-positive deer was much more diffuse than in past years, and the implications of our surveillance sampling are that small, but established, foci of disease exist in Kane County, Grundy County, LaSalle County, and the border area of JoDaviess and Stephenson counties,” the report states.

According to the report, “Staffing and monetary constraints will likely limit our ability to effectively manage CWD if continued spread of the disease occurs. Past management efforts have lowered deer densities in strategic areas and maintained disease prevalence at low levels, but the mobility of white-tailed deer in fragmented Midwestern habitats poses a significant obstacle to controlling disease spread into new areas.”

The IDNR made requests to the Forest Preserve District, Sleepy Hollow and Dundee Township Open Space again to continue their CWD surveillance, management and research project.

After a deer found near the Binnie Woods Forest Preserve west of Carpentersville tested positive for CWD in December 2010, local government bodies allowed IDNR to have sharpshooters kill for testing 20 deer in a portion of rural Dundee Township, 40 more in nearby Kane County forest preserves, and 20 deer in Sleepy Hollow.

That effort has been underway again in 2011-2012, with IDNR planning to kill to test more white-tailed deer across Kane County as it works to discover how the disease made its way to where it has been found in the state.

According to published reported in December, Dundee Township trustees voted 3-2 to let the IDNR kill 30 white-tailed deer in Salamander Springs, off Binnie Road for testing. Reports stated the take this year will be about 150 deer in Kane County, including 30 in Sleepy Hollow.

The effort is not without controversy. A group led by Billita Jacobsen of Carpentersville calls the project a “deer slaughter on open space” and is urging those who agree to attend the annual Dundee Township meeting at 7:30 p.m. on April 10 at the Randall Oaks Golf Club.



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