It’s ‘a cycle of life,’ so why are fewer hunting deer in Illinois? – Outdoor News

Macomb, Ill. — Mike Foulk walked along the edge of a harvested farm field southeast of Macomb, Ill., just after sunrise on a hazy, damp, and chilly morning in early December.

Foulk hoped to spot a deer. He is one of a decreasing number of firearm deer hunters in Illinois.

“Duck hunting is my main passion, but we didn’t get a deer last year so I wanted to focus on trying to get a deer this year,” he said. “You just have to remember, this is feeding you and your family when you’re doing it. It’s a cycle of life. It will last us a year or so. That part’s important. Plus, it’s a lot cheaper than having to go buy beef at the grocery store.”

Foulk lives in Macomb with his wife and their two boys. He’s been a hunter for around a dozen years.

Foulk has been around guns his entire life.

“We weren’t told to be afraid of them. We were told to respect them,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, a lot of parents, or adults and kids, they think everything’s scary about them, but they’re not. It’s just another tool. You just have to learn to respect it like any other tool.”

Numbers from the 2022 season show Illinois had roughly 122,000 firearm deer hunters. A decade ago, that number was 163,000. (Stock photo)

However, Foulk was 31 before he started hunting. He said his father-in-law was a good hunter and a good teacher.

“Lucky enough I married into a family that hunted. I never hunted. We had firearms, we were raised with firearms, but we weren’t really hunters. I was always target practicing or paper shooting,” Foulk said.

One of Stephanie’s uncles owns the land Foulk hunts on. Foulk estimated he’s taken down six or seven deer here in the past. He shot his first deer in 2011, the first year he hunted.

“Here comes this buck. He was a smaller buck. But he was my first deer and I shot him and he went immediately down,” Foulk said. “I was so excited. That’s kind of what got me hooked, too. Plus doing everything. Your adrenaline’s pumping. It was just super exciting.”

There was not much adrenaline pumping on this particular morning. It was fairly quiet, though Foulk noticed he was not the only one out hunting. Through his binoculars, he spotted a coyote in the distance.

“Yep, there’s one over there.

He’s just past the tree line. You see where this thing that kind of sticks up in the middle between these sets of trees here? He’s on the other side of it. A coyote. Just sitting there. He’s out hunting, too,” Foulk said.

Fewer people are hunting in Illinois than in the past, though there is an effort to turn that around.

Illinois Learn to Hunt

Numbers from the 2022 season show the state had roughly 122,000 firearm deer hunters. A decade ago, that number was 163,000.

Dan Stephens hopes to help reverse that trend. He’s Program Manager for the Illinois Learn to Hunt program, which is a collaboration between the Illinois Natural History Survey and DNR.

He said the program provides an educational pathway for people who are interested in hunting but don’t have someone in their immediate family to teach them or just don’t know how to get started.


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Stephens believes hunting is beginning to appeal to millennials who want to provide food for themselves and their families.

“Kind of taking grasp of the ownership of that harvest and not just relying on buying chicken nuggets from the market, but being a part of that local food system,” Stephens said.

He also said hunting helps manage the state’s natural resources. He said every time someone buys a hunting license, firearm, ammo, or archery equipment, some of that money goes to conservation programs.

In addition, hunting helps manage populations to prevent disease outbreaks and limit conflicts between humans and wildlife.

Why are fewer people hunting?

Stephens believes the decline in hunting in the state can be attributed in part to Father Time – those who hunted for many years are aging and might be less likely to head out.

But a lot also comes down to access.

“When I first started hunting, I could go knock on somebody’s door and ask them, ‘Hey, can I go hunt your farm? I’ll take care of it. I won’t mess anything up. Can I go hunt?’ Largely, I would get ‘Yes.’ Nowadays, I normally have to knock on 30 or 40 doors before I can get somebody to give me permission,” Stephens said.

He pointed to liability concerns for farmers, plus the potential for them to make a lot of money by leasing out their land.

“It’s very hard to convince a landowner who could potentially lease out a property for $5,000 a year to just say, ‘Hey can I just go hunt it?’ and go out there for free,” Stephens said.

He said that’s crowding more hunters onto public lands to compete for the deer at those sites. Stephens believes the term “trophy hunter” gets thrown around a little more than it should. Many people – including him – hunt for food.

Empty-handed, but still a good day

Foulk eventually left the blind and walked the field, trying to flush out any deer that might be hunkered down. But none were around. Despite the lack of luck, he considered it a morning well spent.

“I would like a little bit more action, but that’s just part of hunting. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. But you’ve got to be out there to have a chance,” Foulk said, adding that hunting is a chance to get away from computer screens and get back to the basics. And Foulk remains optimistic. “Yeah, there’s always tomorrow,” he said.

So he packed up his gear in his white 1997 Jeep and headed down the gravel driveway, back onto the road and into town – back into the world of screens and stores and away from the time he enjoys out in nature.

Tomorrow would bring another opportunity to put food on his family’s table.

Rich Egger, a Chicagoland native, lives in Macomb. He has served as Tri-State Public Radio’s News Director since July 1998. Reprinted with permission.