A few years ago I read the story of how KY reintroduced the whitetail. One part of the story struck me as funny, and in relation to this situation, poignant.
Basically, they bred a captive herd for a number of years and then figured they would introduce 20 deer per county. In some counties, the new herd thrived and grew. In some cases it did not. The deer disappeared. In those counties, the wildlife gurus put in 20 more deer. Those disappeared, and so it went. The gurus thought it was wild dogs eating the deer. They just kept throwing deer into those counties until they caught on.
After years of this, the wildlife gurus figured out that it was humans and not dogs that were the root problem. Folks just saw those deer as food and ate them. Although not named, those counties probably constitute the ZONE 4 of Kentucky which still has the smallest registered harvest and the shortest seasons.
My point in bring this up in relation to the issues in IL (and IN, and elsewhere)
1) In most places 20 deer are all it takes to make a thriving herd, given time, but if the locals don't buy into it, you can throw any number of deer at the problem and not find a solution.
2) Humans are very efficient hunters. 20 deer in 400 square miles can be extirpated in a very short time-- that's 1 deer per 20 square miles.
3) The mystery went unsolved for years. The gurus thought it was dogs. Even when the root cause was discovered, the gurus really did not find a lasting solution.
By my figuring, this may be going on all through the Rust Belt. There is no reason for it NOT to be happening. Furthermore, I doubt the experts on this know what to do with it. I question whether they have the data to make accurate models. If they do, I doubt we would be told the truth.
What I mean by this is, assuming I'm right, if a state wildlife official comes out and says all the deer are disappearing to poaching, hunters are going to scream for enforcement, but enforcement is not going to help the problem. Even when hungry folk know it is wrong, they probably are going to keep doing it and keep eating the evidence. Locking up hungry people only creates more hardship. If I am right and the problem IS spiraling upward, then folks are going to stop buying tags, because A) they know they can get away with it or B) they're fed up paying for ineffective game management. It is far easier for wildlife officials to stay mum and hope for a change in the circumstances.
Look, how many of y'all had relations that went through the Great Depression? Did those relations go out and buy tags and go to check stations? I bet a lot of them ate venison during those years, even though there were no open seasons in those days. If somebody showed up with a leg of deer, did any of your kin wonder if it had been properly tagged and checked in? I personally do not have any stories that quite fit that. Frankly, there were no deer around in those days. However, I knew Grandpa and Grandma. If Grandpa came home with a hunk of meat, Grandma got out the stew pot. One day, he came home with a whole live pig on his back. No one in the family asked where he got it.
Now for the big question: How many of your kin got convicted of Poaching?
One other thing. As I understand deer populations-- someone chime in here and help if I'm wrong-- the deer population better than doubles every summer and then hunting and predation and disease and what-else claims about 50% of the herd over the winter. What's left in spring is about 10% bigger than what it was the year before if all goes well. What that means is that if you locally have a good winter, the herd has the possibility of exploding quickly. If you have a major factor hampering the population, the numbers can be very volatile. Hunting accounts for about 50% -60% of the population drop. Now, if you have EHD or an ice storm, or some such, the population will bounce back very quickly. On the other hand, if you have an endemic problem like poaching, you may have depressed numbers for years. This smells more like poaching than epidemic or just bad management.
Last thing and then I'll shut up: overselling tags does not do a whole lot. You figure about 25% success rate per hunter per year. If some hunter gets 2 tags or 20, it does not increase the success rate.