The Hawkeye Herd

It may sound like an odd equation, but in Iowa, fewer deer plus enlightened hunter attitudes equal good hunting and bigger trophies. (July 2007)

Randy Scheel of Garrison poses with a 150-class buck that he took in Iowa.
Photo courtesy of Dan Anderson.

It's midsummer, halfway between the close of last winter's deer hunting seasons and opening day of this year's first whitetail hunting season. It's a prime time to look back on last year's harvest, survey the condition of the standing deer herd, and get a sneak peek at what Iowa's timberlands hold for hunters this fall and winter.

FEWER BUT BETTER

Final figures from wintertime aerial surveys, springtime surveys and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' new electronic registration system weren't fully tallied as this went to press, but visits with wildlife biologists and hunters from around the state indicate contradictory trends in Iowa's deer population.

"There seems to be a subtle shifting in the structure of our deer population," said Terry Hainfield, IDNR wildlife biologist for Howard, Chickasaw, Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in far northeast Iowa. "We're starting to see a population that is lower in overall numbers, but higher in quality, as far as trophy bucks."

That observation pleases Willie Suchy, the IDNR's statewide deer management guru. Suchy and his fellow biologists have struggled since the late '90s to curtail Iowa's skyrocketing deer population without degrading the world-class hunting now available to our hunters. The challenge was to reduce the deer herd in areas of the state where favorable habitat encouraged excessive deer numbers, without over-hunting agricultural areas with smaller deer populations.

"The comments we got from hunters (last winter) were that deer numbers were down nearly statewide, but that they still had good hunting," said Suchy. "Going into the 2006 hunting seasons, we estimated we had around 310,000 deer in Iowa. Our goal, with the seasons and licensing we established, was to get that number down to around 270,000. Based on hunters' comments and preliminary survey reports, we're getting really close to where we want to be."

Some hunters, especially in northwest and north-central Iowa, have expressed concern that Suchy's phrase "where we want to be" means tougher hunting in that flat, treeless region of Iowa. Suchy said hunters in Iowa's flatlands won't have easy deer hunting, but should have good hunting if deer populations stabilize near current levels.

"A few years ago there were too many deer for the available habitat, even in northern Iowa, and hunters up there had it pretty easy," said Suchy. "We liberalized the licensing up there for a few years and got the deer population down closer to what the habitat will support. We cut back on (the number of tags) we issued last year, and will probably cut back some more this year in the northern part of the state, to allow deer numbers to rebound just a little bit."

Suchy noted that hunters in northern Iowa still have plenty of opportunities to fill their tags despite fewer deer in that part of the state. "We've only gone from 'excess' to 'adequate,'" he said. "We're still seeing 80 to 85 percent success rates from our deer hunters. When you factor in the segment of our hunters who pass up shots at any deer that's not a trophy, percentages like that tell me that anybody who really wants a deer is getting shots at them.

"For the majority of our hunters, even in northern Iowa, the question isn't 'Will I see a deer?' as much as 'Which deer do I want to shoot?'"

Habitat is the key to deer populations in Iowa, and its relevance is easily documented in far northeast Iowa. Of the counties that wildlife biologist Terry Hainfield manages, Howard and Chickasaw are relatively flat and heavily farmed, while Winneshiek and Allamakee are part of Iowa's rugged "Little Switzerland."

"We've had complaints from hunters in Howard and Chickasaw counties that we've overhunted those counties, but I think we've just cut back on excessive deer numbers," said Hainfield. "There's actually excellent deer hunting in the habitat that's available in those counties. There just isn't as much habitat."

Allamakee County is traditionally one of Iowa's top two counties for total deer harvested, simply because the rugged patchwork of forested ridges and agricultural bottoms supports some of our state's highest per-square-mile densities of deer. The local population of deer is so strong that the IDNR is still liberalizing licensing in that area to try bringing deer numbers down.

"We'll probably issue a few more antlerless tags this year up in Allamakee, Clayton and some of the other areas where we still have high numbers of deer," said Suchy. "The same goes for southeast and southern Iowa."

SOUTHERN EXCESSES

Extra antlerless tags, along with bonus antlerless hunting seasons in January, have encouraged hunters in southeast and southern Iowa to kill more deer. Suchy noted that deer populations in the southern two tiers of counties are down, but still not to optimum levels.

"There are a couple things going on with our hunters that seem to keep us from getting ahead of the herd in (southern Iowa)," he said. "South central Iowa doesn't have any large cities, so we just don't have lots of hunters down there to take advantage of all the deer. So we've had to add seasons, add things like the bonus antlerless high-powered rifle season in January to get people to travel and hunt in those areas.

"Plus, tradition is a big thing with Iowa's deer hunters. Our hunters have strong traditions of hunting certain places at certain times in certain ways. The challenge has been to develop new traditions, and we're seeing that start to happen.

"Some of the guys made a special effort to get together for the special antlerless season over Thanksgiving weekend we had for the past two years," Suchy continued. "Other guys are making it an annual thing to travel south and use the bonus January season to take deer with bow or muzzleloader, or maybe with high-power rifles."

"The nice thing is that our hunters are making the transition, changing the way they think . . . taking the does, passing up small bucks, and taking only the biggest bucks. It's turning into a win-win situation."

-Chad Paup, IDNR

Randy Scheel of Garrison is one of the hunters who traveled to southern Iowa with his high-power rifle to take a big doe last January. An avid hunter who regularly scores on wallworthy bucks by means of bow and arrow, he viewed a rifle hunt as a unique way to end last year's hunting seasons.

Hunting in Wayne County with his nephew-in-law Tracy Bonar, Scheel had his pick of a herd of does that ran past his stand less than 10 minutes after he sat down on a cold Saturday morning in January. He studied his options through the scope on his .243 Savage, chose the largest doe, and pulled the trigger at a range of 40 yards. Bonar dropped a doe a few hours later at 100 yards.

Scheel had checked the IDNR's website before traveling to Wayne County, and knew that extra antlerless tags were still available for that county. So, after field dressing their deer, he went to town and bought another tag so he could hunt again on Sunday. He dropped another doe at 20 yards early the next day.

"I've got use for the venison, and I love to hunt, so the bonus late season is just a great deal for me," said Scheel. "When it was all said and done, I could have got those deer with a shotgun, but the rifle made it interesting. Some people were concerned that a .243 wouldn't have the power to put down some of our big Iowa deer, but I'm really pleased with how well it worked. I use Winchester Ballistic Silvertip 95-grain bullets, and they seem to have plenty of punch. The first doe was shot through the shoulder, and only went 30 yards before she dropped, and the second one was a spine shot that dropped in her tracks."

THE IDNR'S SECRET WEAPON: OUR HUNTERS

Suchy said that the IDNR needs passionate hunters like Scheel and Bonar, but acknowledges that different hunters have different attitudes toward deer hunting.

"As we've computerized our licensing and registering process and become able to analyze our hunters, we're finding out that we have three distinct groups of hunters in Iowa," said Suchy. "There's one group who are the fanatics, the guys who think and plan and study deer hunting 12 months a year. Bowhunters make up a lot of that group.

"There's another group that are enthusiastic hunters, who hunt every year, but they are seasonal. They only get interested when the weather cools off and it starts to feel like deer hunting weather. A lot of those guys are shotgun hunters, along with some muzzleloaders.

"The third group," said Suchy, "is made up of casual hunters, guys who might not hunt every year, or might not hunt unless they're invited by friends or relatives. They like to hunt deer, but the social aspect is what keeps them coming back year after year."

The ability to recognize hunters' interests may influence decisions the IDNR makes to manage our deer herd in the future. "We've been surprised at the number of hunters who drop in and out of hunting," said Suchy. "We know our die-hards are going to be out there every year and appreciate what they do for us. We're confident that we can provide good hunting for the middle third of hunters, the ones who are seasonally interested. But we can't stay ahead of our deer herd with just those two segments of our hunting population -- we need to keep that bottom third, the casual hunters, interested and involved if we're going to maintain the deer population at current levels."

That's because Iowa's deer hunters are the IDNR's chief deer management tool. The agency makes rules and regulations and licenses quotas to control and direct hunting pressure, but deer management is ultimately dependent on how our hunters use the opportunities provided by the IDNR. According to Chad Paup, wildlife management biologist for Adams, Union, Clarke, Taylor, Ringgold and Decatur counties in southern Iowa, Iowa's hunters are "managing" our deer herd very well.

"The key to getting ahead of the deer population is to shoot lots of does," says Paup. "For years hunters wanted to shoot only bucks, and we encouraged that, because we needed the does to increase our population. But now that we have the deer herd where we want it, or still maybe too high in some places, we need hunters to shoot does.

"The nice thing is that our hunters are making the transition, changing the way they think," said Paup. "Twenty years ago, during shotgun season, guys would brag that their group killed 20 bucks, but most of them were little basket bucks. Now I hear the same groups proud that they killed 15 or 16 does, along with 4 or 5 really nice, big bucks, in the 150-plus range.

"Our hunters are taking the does, passing up small bucks, and taking only the biggest bucks. It's turning into a win-win situation."

Brant "Toad" Fox, a deer-hunting fanatic from Colfax, agrees. Along with being an avid hunter, he's part of RealHunting, an Iowa-based video production company that specializes in videos of Iowa deer hunts. Their RealHunting DVD (available at many local hunting supply retailers or at www.realhunting.us) is a compilation of videos shot by Iowa hunters of Iowa deer hunts.

"We want to showcase the kind of hunting we have in Iowa, along with the experiences of Iowa's hunters," said Fox. "Putting the DVD together made us realize how many really good deer there are in this state, and how dedicated our hunters are. For deer hunting fanatics like us, every day is Christmas, when we go to the mailbox and find another video that an Iowa hunter sent to us. It's awesome to see the bucks that are out there. From what I've seen and heard about bucks that nobody has gotten yet, there will be several world-record-class whitetails roaming Iowa this fall."

Fox noted that their most impressive videos came from northeast, southeast and south central Iowa. However, he conceded that he does much of his own hunting near his home in central Iowa.

"If everybody else thinks they have to go to southern Iowa to get a big buck, that's fine with me," he said with a chuckle. "And that's all I'm going to say."

MANAGING TODAY FOR THE FUTURE

Some might think that now that we're at the balancing point between too many and not enough deer, that the IDNR's wildlife managers might relax a bit and punch the autopilot button. Far from it: If anything, deer managers intend to enhance the management skills and tools they've developed over the 53 years since deer hunting was reinstituted in Iowa.

"We can't relax and coast," said Suchy. "Human influences and environmental factors constantly change the pressure on the deer population, and we have to react to those changes."

Special hunts in urban areas are an example of the IDNR's proactive attitude toward deer management. Complaints by residents of Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and other urban areas spurred city officials to work with the IDNR to develop special bow hunts within their city limits.

"Special hunts are one of the things I'm most pleased about," said Suchy. "They've proven to be really effective, and been well accepted by the hunting and non-hunting publics. Hunters like to be able to hunt close to home, and like to feel that they're contributing to a good thing. City officials have been pleased with the reductions in deer numbers, at basically no cost to them."

Suchy expects more cities to take advantage of special hunts as urban spraw

l spreads more residents across rural wooded areas. Hunters interested in participating in, or creating, special hunts in their cities should contact city officials.

The IDNR also has a pro-active attitude toward the threat of chronic wasting disease in Iowa. CWD is fatal to deer and has an unproven but worrisome similarity to a neurological disease in humans. CWD was detected in deer in Wisconsin and Illinois several years ago, but has never been identified in deer in Iowa.

"We took 16,000 samples from Iowa deer and tested them for CWD, and they all tested negative," said wildlife biologist Hainfield. "It may never move into our state. But if it does, we have the advantage of having had several years to prepare, to set up a monitoring system, and to observe what did and didn't work to control it in other states that had outbreaks."

The IDNR also monitors the ever-increasing amount of land being bought or leased for hunting rights, especially in the southern half of the state.

"Hunters control our deer population, and landowners control our hunters," said Suchy. "If our hunters and landowners can continue to work together, we can reduce deer numbers a little more where we need to, keep them where they are in other places, and maybe bump them back up a little in places where we could stand a few more deer.

"The nice thing is," said Suchy, "that with the attitude our hunters have shown toward passing small bucks and killing only the biggest bucks, we can have the smaller, optimum deer herd for the habitat we have available, provide everybody a chance to take a doe and have venison, and still keep producing bigger bucks. It's a win-win-win situation."

Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com

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