Iowa's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Iowa's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

We've got the inside line on this season's whitetail action in the Hawkeye State, and on which counties should be hot -- or not. To fill your tags, and your freezer, give these areas a try. (October 2008)

Clayton, Allamakee and Van Buren topped last year's list of Iowa counties ranked by size of deer harvest. More of the same's expected this year.

Opinions and observations are flying as the 2008-09 Iowa deer hunting seasons approach. Some say our state is the best place in the United States to kill a trophy whitetail buck. Others contend deer numbers are down and regulations need to be tightened to build the herd back up. Still others point to deer/vehicle collisions as an indicator that herd numbers are too high, or complain that deer leases are decreasing the availability of land.

Indications based on statistics and surveys conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are that Iowa's deer herd is in good to excellent shape heading into the hunting seasons. Herds in 40 percent of Iowa's counties are at or near the IDNR's idea of optimum deer populations for balancing available habitat with minimal deer/human conflicts. The remainder of the state's deer herd is still above optimum levels but slowly decreasing as the IDNR adjusts regulations to allow hunters more opportunities to harvest deer in those areas.

The result: opportunities equal to -- and possibly better than -- recent years' excellent deer hunting.

BY THE NUMBERS
To gauge the potential of this year's Iowa deer seasons, we can look at the combined overall results from last year's seasons. Our deer populations change little from year to year. Where the deer were last year is where they're likely to be this year.

Given that, we can predict that the highest deer populations -- and therefore the highest harvests -- will be in northeast Iowa. Clayton County, in far northeast Iowa, was the No. 1 deer-producing county last year, tallying 7,551 deer over the course of last year's deer seasons. Allamakee County, Clayton's neighbor to the north, and Van Buren County in far southeast Iowa, tied for second place. Hunters in each of those counties killed 4,473 deer last season.

The rest of the top 25 deer-producing counties during last year's seasons were sprinkled across the northeast, east-central and southern counties of Iowa. A band of counties two tiers wide along the eastern and southern borders of the state were -- and probably will be -- our best.

At the other end of the scale, a band of counties four tiers deep across most of the top of the state tallied the lowest per-county harvest of deer during last year's seasons. No surprises there: Those counties contain some of the world's best farmland but few woodlands, and so will never have lots of deer. But some deer do inhabit those counties.

"There are deer anywhere in Iowa (where) there is enough habitat to support them, and sometimes that doesn't take very much habitat," said Willie Suchy, IDNR wildlife research supervisor. "Deer densities per square mile of timbered habitat in northern Iowa are about the same as they are in southern Iowa. There just aren't as many square miles of timber in northern Iowa."

The treeless nature of northern Iowa is reflected in the number of deer harvested from Iowa's bottom five deer-producing counties. Calhoun County tallied the least deer during last year's season, reporting only 136 kills for 99th place in the overall county-by-county rankings of deer killed. Hunters in Grundy County killed 141 deer to earn 98th spot, with Ida County tallying 208 kills for 97th, Pocahontas earning 96th position with 213 deer, Osceola County taking 95th spot with 224 deer and Emmet County "topping" our bottom five deer-producing counties with 269 deer killed.

Counties in eastern and southern Iowa predictably have the highest deer populations and highest harvest totals simply because they have the terrain and habitat to support higher deer densities. But an irregular group of counties in south-central Iowa, bordering on central Iowa, has been working its way into higher rankings in the IDNR's deer harvest reports.

"There are some counties near and south of Des Moines that haven't responded (to existing hunting regulations) like we hoped," said IDNR deer management biologist Tom Litchfield. "We're getting complaints that there are still too many deer in those areas, and there may be a couple reasons.

"One, the antlerless quotas for those counties may have been too low. We'll rectify that this year by increasing quotas. Two, the perception that there are too many deer may be more due to increased opportunities for deer-human conflicts than an actual over-population of deer."

Litchfield noted that many people now commute to Des Moines from Knoxville, Indianola, Winterset, even as far as Chariton and Osceola. The combination of more people living in rural areas, or commuting through rural areas that traditionally support a strong population of deer, magnifies the perception that there are "too many deer."

Even though car/deer accidents in Iowa decreased by 5 percent in 2007, those incidents prompt many non-hunters to declare that some areas of the state have too many deer. Add complaints from farmers about crop damage and from suburban homeowners who suffer damage to their landscaping, and the outcry can seem quite strident at times.

The IDNR is working not only to increase harvests in areas where there are legitimate overpopulations of deer, but also to reduce deer/human conflicts in areas wherever possible. Special hunts -- usually archery-only -- in urban areas around the state have proven popular with hunters and effective in reducing urban deer numbers quietly and safely.

High populations of deer associated with urban areas aren't necessarily inaccessible to innovative deer hunters in Iowa. Bowhunters in particular may benefit from befriending owners of acreages in wooded areas outside city limits. After a couple years of having gardens and ornamental shrubs grazed to stubs, many rural homeowners welcome archers who can carefully and quietly reduce deer populations on their acreages.

Shotgunners don't have to be left out of the opportunities provided by de facto deer sanctuaries created by acreages scattered through timbered areas. It takes a little work to contact each homeowner before the season to get permission to run a drive through an area, but polite hunters who explain their strategies and emphasize safety may gain permission to use un-armed drivers

to push deer toward armed hunters far from houses.

THE ISSUE OF ACCESS
Litchfield and other game managers at the IDNR are closely monitoring the issue of hunter access in Iowa. In short, Iowa's reputation for world-class whitetail bucks has prompted non-residents to lease or buy land solely to kill a trophy buck. That concerns Litchfield and his co-workers because those areas become inaccessible to local hunters and could create local overpopulations of deer if land managers kill only the biggest bucks.

"If you chart deer hotspots around the state -- places where we get the most complaints about too many deer -- many of them are associated with areas where there is more non-resident leasing or buying of land simply for hunting rights," said Litchfield. "Some of those properties are owned by Iowan's who live in other parts of the state and want land in good deer habitat, but the issue is the same -- if they kill primarily bucks, the remainder of the deer herd will overpopulate."

Fortunately, most hunters in Iowa have bought into the IDNR's deer management strategy of killing does, passing young bucks and shooting only larger, mature bucks. Some call it Quality Deer Management -- the fabled "QDM." The IDNR doesn't necessarily advocate strict QDM, but it follows its basic outlines.

"Our goal isn't to produce big bucks," said Litchfield. "Our goal is to have our deer herd in balance with the available habitat and the other animals that use that habitat, and to minimize conflicts between deer and humans. The nice thing about our strategy is that if hunters take advantage of all the antlerless tags we provide, don't shoot younger bucks and take mature bucks, we end up with both a controlled deer herd and some of the biggest whitetails in the world."

Some Iowans still argue against killing does in the belief that more does create more bucks, in hopes of eventually producing more, bigger bucks. Litchfield disagrees.

table#specialTable {padding: none;background: black; font-family: Arial,Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align: left;font-size: 11px;}table#specialTable tr {color: red; background:blue;}#specialTable td {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #cccccc; color:black;border-right: 1px solid black; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noright {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: none;border-left: none; border-bottom: 1px solidblack;}#specialTable td.noleft {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: 1px solid black;border-left: none; border-bottom:1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noborder {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #669966;color: black ;border-right: none; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable th {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #ffffff; color:black;font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align:left;font-size: 9px;}#specialTable tr.offcolor td { background: #ffffff;}#specialTable tr.footer {}#specialTable td.footer {}#specialTable h3 { margin: 0; padding:0;font-size: 15px; border-bottom: 2pxsolid #669966;}.bottom { 2px solid black;}

THE BEST AND THE WORST OF IOWA DEER HARVESTS

Based on overall county deer harvest totals from all 2007-08 seasons.
Iowa's Top 15 Deer Counties
Rank County Total Harvest
1. Clayton 7,551
2T.Allamakee 4,473
2T.Van Buren 4,473
4.Jackson 3,420
5.Fayette 3,917
6.Davis 3,094
7.Dubuque 3,030
8.Linn 2,960
9.Winnshiek 2,873
10.Johnson 2,864
11.Jones 2,707
12.Warren 2,618
13.Appanoose 2,479
14.Delaware 2,437
Iowa's Bottom 5 Deer Counties
5.Osceola 224
4.Pocahontas 213
3.Ida 208
2.Grundy 141
1.Calhoun 136

"It's like the old experiments where scientists took white rats in laboratories and kept increasing their population in a controlled area," he said. "Eventually the rats began to develop health problems from having to fight for food and stress from crowding. We've seen the same thing happen with deer. . . . Even if there's plenty of food, the stress of too many deer in an area can actually degrade the quality and size of antler development."

Deer management theories inevitably include the topic of food plots. The strategy of planting specific types

of cover and forage crops for deer gets mixed reviews from Litchfield.

"First, there's no nutritional need for food plots under normal circumstances in Iowa," he said. "The corn, soybeans, hay and natural foods such as forbs and mast crops we have throughout Iowa provide bucks all the nutrition they need to maximize antler development, if that's the goal of the food plots.

"The only advantage food plots have in Iowa is that they can attract and hold more deer in an area. My concern is that if the food plots run short and get eaten up, or during the spring and summer, when deer don't use food plots as much, that those extra deer are going to move out and then draw complaints about crop damage from other landowners in the area.

"Even if your food plots can support all the deer they attract," he noted, "you have to kill enough does to keep things balanced, or we're back to the problem of too many deer."

FINE-TUNING THE HARVEST
Exact details of this year's deer hunting regulations and license quotas had yet to be finalized at press time, but indications were that similar seasons and regulations were on tap. The relatively new "holiday" antlerless hunting seasons related to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's have proven effective in getting more hunters into the field and increasing deer kills in specific areas, and they will probably be continued in some counties.

More licenses aren't always the solution to high deer populations, however. Litchfield notes there are areas of the state where increasing antlerless quotas won't necessarily increase the harvest.

"Allamakee County is an example," he said. "They didn't sell out of (antlerless) licenses last year. Even though hunters up there purchased a lot of licenses -- around 3,400 -- there were 1,100 (antlerless) licenses that weren't sold. There's no point in increasing the quota unless we can find ways to increase the number of hunters to use the licenses in those counties."

That was one of the goals when the IDNR instituted the Late Bonus Antlerless Centerfire Rifle season in southern counties several years ago. Surveys indicated that the problem wasn't the availability of licenses to kill deer in those counties. It was getting enough hunters to use the licenses that were available. The result was the creation of a hunting opportunity that has now become a tradition for hunters from across the state.

"We have hunters in northern Iowa and other parts of the state that now make it an annual thing to get together and travel to southern Iowa for the late season just so they can hunt with centerfire rifles," said Suchy. "Landowners down there understand that we need to kill extra deer, and the guys (with rifles) from up north have had good luck getting access to deer during that late season."

A concern about the late centerfire season voiced by local hunters was addressed when the IDNR shortened that season last winter. Hunters feared that trophy bucks that had shed their antlers by January might be harvested accidentally as "antlerless." Litchfield monitored that potential problem last year and will use the information for establishing season dates for this year's hunting seasons.

table#specialTable {padding: none;background: black; font-family: Arial,Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align: left;font-size: 11px;}table#specialTable tr {color: red; background:blue;}#specialTable td {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #cccccc; color:black;border-right: 1px solid black; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noright {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: none;border-left: none; border-bottom: 1px solidblack;}#specialTable td.noleft {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #adadad;color: black;border-right: 1px solid black;border-left: none; border-bottom:1px solid black;}#specialTable td.noborder {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #669966;color: black ;border-right: none; border-bottom: 1px solid black;}#specialTable th {margin: 2px; padding: 2px; background: #ffffff; color:black;font-family: Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;text-align:left;font-size: 9px;}#specialTable tr.offcolor td { background: #ffffff;}#specialTable tr.footer {}#specialTable td.footer {}#specialTable h3 { margin: 0; padding:0;font-size: 15px; border-bottom: 2pxsolid #669966;}.bottom { 2px solid black;}

2007 IOWA DEER SEASON SUMMARY

(Data includes both antlerless and either-sex licenses and harvests.)
Season Licenses Sold Deer Harvest
Youth 8,109 3,461
Disabled175 61
Archery79,991 22,240
Early MZ12,588 4,462
Nov. Anterless 11,555 4,526
Gun 1 (paid)84,586 40,883
Gun 2 (paid)62,838 26,292
Gun 1&2 (LO/T)41,46013,862
Late MZ34,832 10,530
Jan. Antlerless26,880 9,029
Non-Res.*42,180 5,824
Non-Res. Gov148 43
Senior Crossbow91 23
Special Hunts 6,655 3,186
Ammunition Plant 46 4
AgFree 44 7
Depredation 3,865 1,781
TOTAL 389,163 146,214
* All Seasons Note: MZ=Muzzleloader

"Last winter was a rough winter across most of Iowa and sped up the shedding process," he said. "By the 4th day of the second shotgun season, shed antlered bucks were appearing consistently in our hunting reports, so we could see that shedding was occurring earlier than normal. Typically, approximately 4 percent of the deer killed during the January Antlerless season are shed bucks. Last year, the numbers were around 7.4 percent (for the January season), higher than average, probably because of the hard winter.

"By the end of the hunting seasons, 2,161 shed bucks were reported. That represents 1.5 percent of total deer harvest, and about 3 percent of the buck harvest, including button bucks."

Litchfield's ability to pinpoint nearly to the day when shed bucks began to regularly appear in harvest reports points to the advantages of the new mandatory reporting system now in effect for all deer hunters in Iowa. But it also raises questions for long-time Iowa Game & Fish readers who notice significant differences in the number of deer kills reported in 2007 compared to previous years.

"Before mandatory reporting, harvest numbers were estimates based on results of random, voluntary postcard surveys," said Litchfield. "We believe that people were more apt to respond if they had killed deer than if they had not killed deer, so those numbers were therefore probably overestimated.

"We're finding out that, even with mandatory reporting, not everybody reports, so the new harvest estimates are actually minimum harvest numbers. We're going to take steps this year to improve compliance, and hope to improve our accuracy in estimating the harvest and managing our deer herd because of it."

In the end, Litchfield estimated, Iowa's hunters killed around 170,000 deer during last year's hunting seasons. He predicts a similar harvest for this year. "If you liked last year's deer hunting, you'll like this year's deer hunting," he said. "Seasons will be similar -- maybe a little more liberal in eastern and southern counties, maybe a little tighter in a few northwestern and north-central counties where the herd is about where we want it or maybe needing a little room to breathe. But overall, I think deer hunters will be very satisfied with what Iowa has to offer this year."

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.