Opening day of the 2017 deer season, whether you are a bowhunter or not, is the day that every deer hunter across Iowa has been waiting for. What will this year's deer season bring? And where will hunting opportunities be better than others to fill that all important tag we purchase each year?
In this edition of the Iowa deer hunting forecast we'll take a closer look at harvest reports from last year, find out where greater numbers of deer exist and help you broaden your chances of filling your tag. We'll also examine the harvest trends and see where the state is in its deer management goals to date.
IOWA DEER POPULATION
The overall objective for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been to decrease the Iowa deer population to numbers that existed in the mid or late 1990s.
"Populations have remained relatively stable across the state since 2013, although the level at which that stability occurs varies depending on which area of the state you're in," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife research biometrician Tyler Harms.
Deer populations continue to be high in northeast Iowa counties such as Allamakee and Clayton, largely due to the high amount of available habitat in that part of the state. Away from northeast Iowa, populations in south-central Iowa counties such as Clarke, Lucas, and Appanoose experienced increased antlered deer harvest during the 2016-2017 season, which can be indicative of an increasing population.
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"Hunters are noticing decreased deer numbers in areas with recent outbreaks of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), commonly known as Blue Tongue," continued Harms. "This disease can have a significant local impact on deer populations."
In 2016-2017 the IDNR received most reports of EHD in central Iowa and western Iowa. Deer populations in southeast Iowa still appear to be recovering from outbreaks of the disease for the past couple years.
Counties in southeast Iowa, with the exception of Lee County, recorded slight decreases in antlered harvest during the 2016-2017 season, although population estimates remain stable to slightly increasing. As noted above, this area of the state is likely still recovering from EHD outbreaks the past couple years.
"Deer populations are slightly down across the western one-third of the state, and we did receive reports of EHD in several western Iowa counties," added the biometrician. "We encourage hunters to continue reporting deer suspected of dying from EHD so we can monitor the occurrence of this disease on an annual basis."
Iowa has a healthy deer heard that all can enjoy. There will always be challenges to managing deer in urban areas and other refuges like state and county parks where restricted hunting opportunity exists. However, special hunts will continue and have been successful in reducing deer numbers in those areas.
2016 DEER SEASON SUMMARY
The deer harvest for the 2016-2017 season was 4 percent lower than the 2015-2016 season, despite license sales remaining essentially unchanged between the two. Total harvest topped 101,397, with 337,939 licenses sold.
"Harvest during the early muzzleloader season was 15 percent lower in the 2016-2017 season, which was likely a result of the unseasonably warm weather hunters experienced during that season," noted Harms.
Clayton County once again topped the list of the top 10 counties in Iowa, with a total harvest of 4,313 deer with an average of 5.53 deer harvested per square mile. Clayton County has been the top spot for the past five consecutive years. As Harms has noted, the northeast part of Iowa has some of the best habitat for deer, providing hunters with ample opportunities to fill their tags. Clayton and Allamakee counties are two of the best and cover 779 and 636 square miles, respectively.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior.
(Via North American Whitetail)
Season structures will be unchanged for 2017-2018 (only adjustments for calendar dates for those seasons that traditionally begin on a Saturday). Annual antlerless quotas will change in about 20 percent of counties for the 2017-2018 season, with quota increases in about half of those counties and quota decreases in the other half. This is largely in response to local management needs to keep statewide populations within acceptable social and biological levels established by the Iowa Deer Study Advisory Group.
Legislation was passed this year adding straight-wall cartridge rifles as an approved method of take during the regular gun seasons and during both youth and disabled seasons, noted Harms. "Approved calibers are the same as those listed as approved for pistols and handguns," he said.
WHERE TO GO
Planning your deer season may take bit more strategizing as deer numbers begin to stabilize. One of the benefits of living in Iowa is that we can easily travel to opportune hunting grounds within a day's drive.
Of the top 10 counties in Iowa for deer harvests during the 2016-2017 season, five are in the northeast part of the state. This is an area where hunters have a better than average chance of harvesting a deer during the 2017-2018 season. The average deer harvested per square mile last season in those five counties totaled 4.41.
In Central Iowa Madison County topped the list, with Warren, Lucas and Marion following. Last season, the combined average harvest per square mile was 4.35 deer. Van Buren County sits alone in the Southeast but has an impressive reported harvest of 5.11 deer per square mile.
IHAP (Iowa Habitat and Access Program) is the private lands program where landowners ask for help from the Iowa DNR in managing that land. A management plan is drawn up by the forestry division and then implemented so that it is monitored to ensure it gets done. These properties then become available to hunters for a set period of time: three, five or 10 years. These properties give you the feel of a piece of privately held land, which they are. And they are not the same size as a WMA (wildlife management area), but it feels a little more intimate hunting in these smaller areas. These IHAP areas are now listed on the Iowa DNR Hunting Atlas accessible through the DNR website. As hunters, be respectful of the land you are accessing through this program. Though it's open to public hunting, you are still using a landowner's property. Leave it in the same condition you found it.
As hunters, we are a part of the management system within the state of Iowa. It's important to report your harvests so that accurate data can be maintained, aiding the IDNR in planning for future harvest limits. Remember to take care of the resources we have in Iowa and share your passion with young and old alike.
Now that we've taken a closer look at recent trends in deer harvest numbers and areas statewide that could be productive hunting locations this season it's time for you to hit the woods and fields at one of these hotspots or another near you. Good hunting!
FINDING HUNTING LAND
There are 99 counties in Iowa, and 98 percent is private land. Much of that land is devoted to farming. But there are still plenty of prime hunting spots, especially in northeast Iowa and south-central Iowa. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources added a great tool to their website called the Hunting Atlas.
The atlas is an interactive map that shows you all the public hunting lands, making it easier for hunters to locate areas more accurately. Zooming in to an area that you'd like to visit as a possible hunting location will give you the boundaries and size of the hunting area, type of habitat and what species may be found. In some cases, a map in PDF form will be available for you to download and print. With a little extra time and effort, you can narrow your starting point down to some very potential possibilities.
While it's true that private-land hunting opportunities offer tremendous potential for tagging a deer this season, the public-land DIY method can still be productive if you do a little research. And the DNR has done a great job of compiling public hunting information and presenting it to hunters in a useful digital format that can save time when you are formulating a plan for the upcoming season. Don't overlook these resources.