’Tis the season of ramming your car into a deer. Not on purpose, of course, but it’s highly likely that hundreds of Southern Illinois motorists will collide with deer this year, as they do every year.
While there are some things smart driving skills one can employ to avoid a deer, it’s largely a numbers game. State Farm pegs the odds of an Illinois driver hitting a deer at 1 in 199, odds that fell in 2013 but that went up slightly in 2014 and 2015 cycles (State Farm collects data from June 30 to July 1 on 12-month cycles).
The state even sets by-county “goal” deer-vehicle accident rates as the objective by which the Illinois Department of Natural Resources judges the success or failure of deer management programs. And that goal is not zero. Statewide, the deer-vehicle accident rate goal is 161 per billion miles traveled, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
In Southern Illinois, the deer-accident goal rates are significantly higher.
To cite a few examples, the goal rate for accidents per billion miles traveled in Franklin County is 382.7; it’s 348 in Williamson County, and it’s 1,214 in Pope County – which bills itself as the “Deer Capital of Illinois.”
In the eight Southern Illinois counties for which the newspaper reviewed historical deer-vehicle collision numbers – Franklin, Jackson, Johnson, Perry, Pope, Saline, Union and Williamson – there were 1,367 combined reported vehicle-car collisions in 2014, according to figures compiled by the Illinois Department of Transportation. In 2013, there were 1,338 accidents in those same counties, and in 2012, there were 1,210.
Though cars collide with deer throughout the year, the chances of doing so spike between October and December during the white-tailed deer migration and mating season, and rise again in the spring when fawn are moving. Because deer are crepuscular – meaning they are active at dawn and dusk – most accidents involving deer occur between 5 to 10 p.m. and 5 to 8 a.m., according to a University of Illinois Extension report.
Now is the time to be extra mindful on the road, particularly when driving long stretches of rural roads, and when driving near preferred habitats of deer such as woodlots, fencerows, field edges or areas near water. Even running over the carcass of a deer someone else already struck can cause damage to a vehicle, or, more seriously, send it careening from the road.
Illinois Department of Transportation District 9 Operations Engineer Keith Miley, based in Carbondale, said IDOT workers patrol the interstates and state highways nearly every day Monday through Friday in the state’s lower 16 counties this time of year to remove dead deer carcasses.
“This is when we see the most evidence of vehicle-deer crashes, and we do routine inspections,” Miley said. While workers are out doing regular patrols, people also are welcome to report an unclaimed carcass that could cause problems on the road by calling IDOT’s Carbondale office, or it can be reported to law enforcement outside of state business hours.
But good news for drivers, deer-vehicle collisions statewide are down significantly compared to a decade ago, and accident rates have remained relatively flat in the past few years, creeping up only nominally statewide this past year, and slightly in 2013 and 2014 in some Southern Illinois counties reviewed as compared to years prior.
Statewide, reported accidents peaked in 2003 at 25,660, compared to 15,354 this past year, according to IDOT data, though the threshold for mandatory reporting of accidents to Illinois State Police was raised from $500 to $1,500 in January 2009.
It was in 2009 also – six years ago – that the state adopted recommendations from the Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control, created by the General Assembly to address a continued rise in deer-vehicle accidents. The task force’s key recommendation was establishing the objective for measuring the status of the Illinois deer population based on deer-vehicle collisions rates, with the rate based on the number of accidents per billion vehicle miles traveled. That status is then used to determine herd management practices such as whether a particular county is open to a late-winter antlerless season, and how many firearm permits are issued.
The goal was to reduce accident rates by 14 percent from the peak in 2003 of 187.5 that year. The statewide rate in 2014 was 146.2, slightly down from 148.3 two years prior. The statewide and individual county target rates are set at halfway between the minimum and maximum rates measured between 1994 and 2007, IDNR spokesman Chris Young said.
Fatalities are rare in vehicle-deer collisions – the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates roughly 200 deaths per year – but the price tag can be steep to repair damage to a car. State Farm pegged the average claim at $4,135 nationwide between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2015.
State Farm, headquartered in Bloomington and which annually releases a press release about the odds of hitting a deer, elk or moose in all 50 states, also estimates likely collisions on a 12-month cycle.
The agency’s estimates, based on industry-wide claims data, are far higher than actual reported accidents for Illinois by IDOT. For example, State Farm estimated 38,969 accidents between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. While not a true comparison because the state’s numbers are computed on a calendar year, IDOT reported 15,354 accidents this past year, less than half of what State Farm estimated.
As for the odds of hitting a deer compared to other states, Illinois has fallen in the State Farm’s ranking in the past decade. In 2005, Illinois was the third most likely place to hit a deer, and the state had fallen to 33 in the most recently released report.
But the odds have been creeping upwards in the past two years. Compared to odds of 1 in 199 this year, it was 1 in 214 in the year 2013; and 1 in 211 in the year 2014.
State Farm computes these odds using its claims data and state licensed driver counts.
While those numbers, and odds, are used to determine rates in a particular state, that’s only one of many factors in a complex formula, said spokeswoman Missy Dundov.
Tom Micetich, IDNR’s deer project manager provided the newspaper some clarification to questions via email about how these rates factor into deer management policies.
He said deer-vehicle collision data has been used by the agency as a herd “trend indicator” for years, pre-dating the recommendations of the task force report and the 2009 implementation of goal rates for each county that followed.
The intent of deer management, Micetich said, is to strike a delicate balance that provides enough deer on the landscape for recreational opportunity including hunting and wildlife watching, while minimizing negative deer-human interactions including collisions, crop and orchard damage and ornamental losses, as well as damage to the forest and other ecosystems caused by deer over-abundance.
Prior to 2009, IDNR utilized periodic surveys of hunters, landowners and others to determine relative deer abundance compared to recent years, satisfaction levels with deer numbers, and future desired direction for deer numbers.
Micetich said this survey still exists, and recent increases to deer-vehicle accident rate goals in 41 counties, meaning less required herd reduction, were a “reflection of the desire to see more deer in those counties while maintaining our commitment to the statewide goal.”
For the 2014-2015 deer season, IDNR removed 20 counties from the late-winter antlerless season, including regionally Jefferson, Perry and Randolph counties, and reduced firearm permits in others.
Those changes came on the heels of reports of some hunters complaining they felt the deer herd was too thin in some areas where they were used to an abundant population.
Jason Johns, owner of Benton-based Boneyard Outfitters, which officers guided deer hunts in Franklin County, said he has never cared for the goal rates as a primary management of the deer.
“It’s basically controlled by insurance lobbyists,” he said. “The insurance companies lobby the lawmakers and those making DNR decisions to say we have a lot of car collisions and need to kill more deer. I’m not sure it’s ever worked.”
Johns also gets frustrated by reports that the herd has thinned significantly in Illinois, because it’s such a regionally specific issue, and potential out-of-state clients often see this and/or read concerns of spreading deer diseases in certain counties -- such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease or chronic wasting disease -- and decide to choose another state to hunt even he said the deer population remains strong and healthy in Southern Illinois.
“You read all these stories about deer herd declining and it might be in certain counties but in Southern Illinois it’s crazy,” Johns said. “We have an over-abundance of deer. You still have to dodge them at night.”