We’ve come a long way from the few hundred white-tailed deer that roamed the countryside in the 1930s. As a matter of fact, we’ve come a little too far, according to state wildlife officials.
Today, nearly 100,000 deer are harvested annually in Iowa, leaving an estimated post-season population of about 200,000. Wildlife managers believe slightly lower numbers are best for the health of the herd, hunters and those who prefer to see even fewer white-tailed deer.
IOWA’S DEER HERD MANAGEMENT PROGRAM
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources strives to manage the state’s herd with everyone’s best interests in mind. Hunters are perhaps the most vocal crowd interested in the overall numbers and trophy potential of whitetails in Iowa and it would seem there can’t be too much of a good thing. But that’s not the case, say farmers whose crops become browse when deer populations boom. Deer move in and clean out corn and beans that would otherwise be on their way to market. Homeowners are unwilling participants in out-of-control deer populations, as well when deer move into town to graze on expensive ornamentals and strip family gardens. Add in a few hundred car-deer crashes and it’s obvious that the number of deer in Iowa has a big effect on a lot of people.
Keeping the deer herd healthy but within bounds is a balancing act, and a tough one at that.
“We do keep track of population trends in each of the Wildlife Management Units,” said Wildlife biologist Curt Kemmerer of the Maquoketa Unit. “The current trend within my unit is showing a population decrease. This is by design.”
According to Kemmerer, hunters have done an outstanding job statewide of working with biologists to reduce deer numbers to reach population goals.
“Some hunters are seeing fewer deer than they did just 5 to 10 years ago, while others have noticed little or no change,” said Kemmerer. “It all depends on where they’re hunting. Hunters who are focusing their efforts in more open country or in places with a lot of hunting access and pressure are seeing fewer deer. Hunters spending time in less accessible spots or who are near areas where hunting is off-limits still see plenty of whitetails. Assigning exact numbers to the deer that are out there is a little tricky since the population is always changing.”
HOW MANY DEER ARE THERE?
Wildlife Biologist Willy Suchy has been asked how many deer live in Iowa and finds that his answer tends to baffle inquirers rather than clarify matters.
“One of the questions I’m asked is how many deer live in Iowa,” said Suchy. “Counting white-tailed deer isn’t an exact science, so we rely on various surveys to get an answer.”
Surveys are designed to produce annual results that can be measured against previous years’ numbers and serve as an index of the population rather than a means to reach a specific figure. An estimate of the overall number of deer is only a guess, at best. What biologists really need to know is whether the deer population is growing or declining over time.
A well-utilized survey in Iowa totals the number of whitetails killed on the state’s roadways. Statistics have been compiled since 1951 and focus on the number of deer killed per million miles driven. Statewide numbers of road kills are compiled year-round and are considered a good index of the deer population.
The second type of survey, first initiated in 1978, is the spring spotlight survey. Eighty-seven spotlight routes were created throughout the state and every year the same routes are checked against previous years’ results. Each route covers 25 miles of gravel roads where deer are likely to be seen and start an hour after sunset in early April.
Aerial counts are another means of collecting data. If there’s snow on the ground it’s easier for observers to get a pretty good handle on the number of deer in a geographical area. About 350 areas are checked from 400 feet off the ground at 70 mph. Each pass lets the observer see a strip of ground about an eighth of a mile wide. A few of the target areas consist of one pass along a river or creek corridor.
Each type of survey has its strengths and weaknesses, said Suchy. Putting the results all together in one pot gives pretty reliable results but still doesn’t answer the question of how big Iowa’s deer herd is at any one time.
It’s safe to say that over the last few decades the number of white-tailed deer has grown. During the 2007-08 seasons, 146,214 white-tailed deer were harvested with 63 percent being antlerless. Prior to the hunt there were an estimated 475,000 deer and post-season about 330,000 remained. The overall state population goals at the time aimed at limiting the herd to mid- to late-1990s levels at between 170,000 to 200,000 deer.
With the push for declining deer numbers in place, the statewide herd has dropped to about 400,000. Last fall a total of 127,094 deer were harvested.
Clayton County with 4,856 deer, Van Buren County with 3,785 and Warren County at 3,278 were the top-producing counties last year.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF DEER MANAGEMENT
Public land deer management at the state level is a complicated process. The DNR has several tools at its disposal but none are a sure bet. A constant analysis of deer numbers is undertaken as wildlife biologists keep their finger on the pulse of the herd and make incremental, though important, changes as needed.
Hunter education is the first management technique. It’s a well-known fact among deer managers that reducing the number of does reduces the birth rate and consequently the size of the herd. Educating hunters to take a large number of antlerless deer has made sportsmen realize that lower numbers mean more quality deer.
Regulations and quotas are another management technique. Harvest rates are tweaked on a county-by-county basis as well as across the entire state. Where numbers of whitetails are too high, hunters are encouraged to take higher numbers of antlerless deer.
Evaluating public attitudes concerning herd size and determining the optimal number of deer in an environment of competing interests is a challenge. Farmers losing money to browsing deer naturally want the numbers lowered at the same time hunters having trouble spotting deer want more liberal numbers. Deer managers are called upon to decide how many deer is the optimal number for each county and region.
Deer management works. In 2007, biologists in northwestern Iowa wanted to reduce the deer population and encouraged the taking of does towards that end. There had been a wide disparity between the number of bucks and does being harvested up until this time with a disproportionate number of bucks being tagged. The goal of having more does harvested than bucks was realized and the herd was reduced to a more manageable size.
This success story is being repeated across the Hawkeye state.
IOWA’S BEST HUNTING
So where’s the good hunting going to be? Here’s what wildlife managers are saying.
“Most hunters were satisfied with the numbers of deer they saw last fall,” said Wildlife Biologist Pete Hildreth in the Blackhawk Unit. “We asked hunters to step up to the plate and harvest more does and they did just that. As a result, the herd is a more stable one. The highest numbers of deer are found in the quality habitat along the Little Sioux River corridor in Buena Vista and Cherokee counties and the North Raccoon River corridor in Calhoun and Sac counties.”
The IDNR manages the Rainbow Bend WMA as a 37-acre timbered tract along the North Raccoon River. The Calhoun County Conservation Board has a 47-acre tract next to Rainbow Bend called the Raccoon River WA. In Sac County the state has a 206-acre public land called the White Horse WMA. Several large wetland and grassland complexes are in Sac and Pocahontas counties. All of these spots offer great habitat and the potential for good hunting.
For more information, contact the Blackhawk Unit at (712) 661-9726.
Wildlife Biologist Greg Hanson, of the Clear Lake Wildlife Unit, points out that there isn’t a lot of good habitat in his neck of the woods.
“Deer are vulnerable due to the openness of the landscape and finding a mature buck can be a challenge,” said Hanson. “Deer numbers are down substantially from the peak in the late ’90s but since 2009 the herd has been stable or increasing slightly.”
Hanson recommends Gabrielson WMA in Hancock County and Pilot Knob RA in Winnebago County because they border the Pilot Knob State Park which acts as a refuge. Other areas worth trying are Elk Creek WMA in Worth County and Rice Lake WMA, along the Worth/Winnebago county line.
Hunters looking for both racks and numbers should concentrate in areas next to closed-to-hunting spots like parks, cities and tightly managed woodlands.
Call the Clear Lake Wildlife Unit at (641) 829-2814 to get more information.
The Maquoketa Wildlife Unit in eastern Iowa has plenty of good hunting available, according to Kemmerer.
“Typically our bigger tracts of public land have more deer, not only because they’re big, but because parts of these areas aren’t accessible unless you really work at it,” said Kemmerer. “Find a spot people aren’t moving about in and that’s where the deer will be.”
The Pictured Rocks and Indian Bluffs area is a spot where hunters can get a long ways off the road and into some good hunting. All of the state and county wildlife areas in the Maquoketa unit have deer on them, but the best ones are the toughest to navigate.
Contact the Maquoketa Wildlife Unit at (563) 357-2035.
Wildlife Biologist Jeff Glaw, of the Sugema Wildlife Unit, is quick to point to Shimek State Forest as the top spot in his management area.
“This is probably the best opportunity for white-tailed deer in my seven-county unit,” said Glaw.
Hunters looking for a big-woods deer experience find this is the place. The Croton units are a good place to start due to extensive edge habitat. Oak and hickory stands are common on the ridges and mast is an important food source.
Shimek sprawls over several thousand acres of dense undergrowth, transitional cover, and deep woods. Most of the forest consists of thin, flat ridge tops, narrow valleys, and natural drainages. Deer numbers are consistently good but they’re less concentrated than in agricultural areas.
The Sugema Wildlife Unit can be reached at (641) 799-0793.
According to Wildlife Biologist Jeffrey Telleen, all five of the counties within the Rathbun Wildlife Unit in south-central Iowa harbor good numbers of deer and hunter satisfaction runs high.
“Our two biggest wildlife areas, Rathbun and Sedan Bottoms, have traditionally had very good deer numbers,” said Telleen. “However, for most of last summer Sedan was flooded and didn’t end up with the usual number of deer on it.”
The Rathbun WMA covers 16,000 acres of wooded tracts, brush and upland grass. Sedan Bottoms WMA covers over 5,400 acres of forest, bluffs and fairly rough country in Appanoose County on the Chariton River. The weekends see a lot more hunting pressure than weekdays.
Contact the Rathbun Wildlife Unit at (641) 414-1513.
“Over the last five years I’d say deer populations have been stable in the Grand River Wildlife Unit,” said Wildlife Biologist Chap Paup. “In my unit hunters seem to be happy with the numbers even though they’re seeing fewer deer.”
Paup recommends the Sand Creek WMA in his neck of the woods for those looking for higher numbers of deer and excellent opportunities to fill the freezer. The area is full of natural pinch points and funnels that affect deer movement and a topographic map can be in indispensible aid in pre-scouting. Sand Creek covers 3,500 acres in Decatur and Ringgold counties. Smaller public areas provide good hunting as well and include Decatur at 2,100 acres and Ringgold at 1,950 acres.
For more information, call the Grand River Wildlife Unit at (641) 782-2502.
Southwestern Iowa’s Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit’s herd is in decline according to plan, said Wildlife Biologist Carl Priebe.
“Last fall many hunters reported seeing fewer deer and I imagine I’ll be hearing from others in the future,” said Priebe.
Even with the lower population density, hunting isn’t suffering. According to Priebe, the opportunities are excellent throughout the region. The exception last year and possibly this fall are the Missouri River Mitigation Project tracts owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Flooding reduced available food sources and smart deer decided to abandon ship.
Several smaller wildlife areas are scattered throughout the region and produce good hunting.
Call the Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit at (712) 350-0147.
In central Iowa, the state, federal and county public lands all have good populations of whitetails, according to Wildlife Biologist Ron Munkel. Land open to the public gets hit pretty hard so it might be wise to look for alternatives. In urbanized rural areas like the Red Rock Wildlife Unit, getting permission to hunt and setting up along the edges of areas where hunting isn’t allowed can be the ticket to success.
The Red Rock Wildlife Unit can be reached at (515) 238-6936.