A bright red trail of blood marred the white snow in Ryerson Woods last week, testifying, according to some, to the tenacity of an injured deer struggling to live after being shot by a sharpshooter.
But Lake County Forest Preserve officials said sharpshooters did not report any deer escaping alive after being shot. Though they didn't deny witnesses saw the blood trail, Forest Preserve officials had no explanation themselves.
The blood trail was brought to the attention of reporters Monday by known opponents of deer culling, who claim it offers proof that using sharpshooters to kill deer is not always humane.
Some of those who support deer culling draw comfort from the idea that the deer are shot and killed instantaneously. Evidence to the contrary could potentially change the minds of those riding the fence on the issue. The Village of Lincolnshire is already embroiled in a heated and divided debate on applying for a permit to cull up to 15 deer in its new North Park, where a state dedicated nature preserve exists.
Steve Hindi, a Geneva resident, said he saw the deer he believes left the trail, a day after the shooting, still alive. "It's bad enough a guy can't hit a deer properly, but it's careless not to track the deer even a hundred feet to finish the job." Hindi said.
Andrew Kimmel, environment education director for the Lake County Forest Preserve, said sharpshooters working there the evening of Feb. 14 said they killed the last of the 18 deer they needed to remove from Ryerson, and took away every one they shot.
Kimmel said Frank Drummond, the wildlife biologist for the Lake County Forest Preserve who supervises the kill, looked around the site after the shootings but did not see any trail of blood leading away from it.
Kimmel also offered that a deer struck by a car might produce the same effect. But he said it was unlikely a hunter shot and injured a deer in the same area, because of the security around the sharpshooter site.
Several days later, the crimson trail was still easy to see as it crossed the path only a half-mile from the Ryerson Woods forest preserve parking lot. The congealed liquid cut a swath through the preserve, melting the nearby snow wherever it fell.
The freezing temperatures prevented the blood from oxidizing into a rust color and blending into the various browns of dirt, trees and leaves. It sparkled in the sunny morning on the white snow, a ruby-studded thread winding among a maze of saplings.
At times, a jagged ink-blot stain appeared in the patch surrounded by a larger halo of yellowed snow. There were five such patches on the blood trail.
The trail ended in a splotch on the side of a large overturned tree.
Davida Terry, president of Voice of the Wildlife, who called the Review to announce the presence of the trail, said there is no question in her mind that sharpshooters struck a deer but only injured it, failing to pursue in after it ran away.
She said this is clear evidence sharpshooters occasionally miss, resulting in wounded deer wandering the forest dying a slow death.
But conservation experts defend the practice of deer culling as a vital element in combating overpopulation. Killing deer is the only method of population control that works, according to Marty Jones, urban deer manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. Sharpshooting is not the only method used to kill deer; other states use controlled hunts. But Jones said sharpshooting has been found to be very effective, both in its speed and its lack of error.
Other alternatives, such as trapping and translocation, were attempted at Ryerson Wood, Jones said. However, the stress placed on the animals separated from its familiar habitat ended up killing many of the deer anyway.
Re-introducing predators such as wolves, which historically kept the deer population in check, is obviously not a viable solution. And even though coyotes have made a surprising return throughout the area, they are smaller than wolves and rarely hunt with more than one partner, posing little threat to healthy, mature deer.
In most sharpshooting programs, injured or escaping deer number will well below 5 percent of those successfully killed, Jones said. People who are opposed to deer sharpshooting have likely never had to euthanize a deer injured after being struck by a car, he said. That trauma often leads to more horrible death for the deer. Jones said car-deer accidents have dropped in Lake County since the deer culling began.
Kimmel said sharpshooters remove deer at Ryerson Woods, MacArthur Woods and Wright Wood, an area encompassing a six-mile stretch of Des Plaines River from Deerfield Road to the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad in northern Mettawa.
The Forest Preserve counts populations at the preserves and surrounding areas during two winter helicopter flights when snow cover allows. Using the average of the two counts, Forest Preserve officials said there were 64 deer in the Ryerson area.
Using a guideline of 15 deer per square mile density limit, Forest Preserve officials determined that the safe upper limit of deer population in Ryerson is 46. Therefore, 18 deer needed to be culled from Ryerson, he said. Deer counts at MacArthur indicated that 12 more deer needed to be shot there, bumping the count to 30. Fortunately, no killings were needed at Wright, he said.
"We could be perfectly happy if we didn't have to kill any deer," Kimmel said.
Hindi said those facts do not minimize the impact of what he stumbled across a day later. Hindi, an admitted activist against deer hunting, said he walked through Ryerson in the afternoon to check out the clearing where the deer had been culled the previous night, and came across the blood trail where it met the maintenance road.
He and a companion followed the trail toward where the sharpshooters had been and saw that it started just to the left of the killing site. Following it back, they crossed the maintenance road and, Hindi said, approached the site where they expected to find a dead deer.
Instead, by a patch of fallen trees, a live deer heard their approach and bounded away quickly, disappearing into the woods. Neither of them saw any blood stain on the deer. There was only one set of foot prints in the snow.