Biologist Willie Suchy has been at the center of Iowa deer management for nearly two decades. Here's his take on how and why things are changing. (August 2006)
Suchy must satisfy hunters, animal rights groups, politicians and insurance companies when managing Iowa's deer.
Photo courtesy of Rich Patterson.
What a deer season it was! Responding to burgeoning deer numbers Iowa's hunters took to the field in late 2005 and early 2006 to enjoy a dizzying array of seasons and ways they could take deer. Five months of hunting saw 211,611 deer converted into delicious roasts, steaks, and burgers.
For anyone who's been hunting Iowa's deer for more than a couple of decades those numbers seem unbelievable. Only 25 years ago deer were relatively scarce, seasons were short, shotgun hunters were restricted to relatively small zones, buck tags were the norm and, with only a few exceptions, hunters could only take one animal per year.
With a new record season behind us it's a good time to take a look at how Iowa's deer herd has changed, if the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is meeting its management plan, and to look into the crystal ball to see what lies ahead this fall, and in future years, for our state's growing number of avid deer hunters.
Is the record 2005 harvest going to reduce deer numbers and hunting success this fall and in future years? They're valid questions, and the person most likely to have the answer is Willie Suchy.
Through the vast changes in Iowa deer and deer hunting these past two decades Suchy emerges as a central figure. He has worked as an IDNR wildlife biologist since 1984. During his early years he worked with upland game, and in 1987 he was named the state's deer biologist. Under his watch the herd has expanded, deer hunting has zoomed in popularity, and deer have become more controversial than ever. Suchy has been in the middle of it all, and much of the credit for our good hunting rests with him.
For years the Iowa Department of Natural Resources managed the herd for growth. With hunters harvesting mostly bucks, Iowa's well-nourished does reproduced with gusto. Most mature does give birth to twins, and triplets are far from unusual. Even most doe fawns produce a fawn when they are just a year old. Years of protecting females caused the herd to grow by leaps and bounds.
As deer numbers grew, opportunities for hunters followed suit. Gradually regulations eased. In 1981 the IDNR dropped zones for resident buck hunters, allowing them more mobility. Three years later, party hunting was legalized, and muzzleloading hunters got their own special season. In 1987 rifled barrels were legalized. In 1997, to the surprise of many, handguns were first legalized during the late muzzleloader season. In following years they were allowed in most firearm seasons. Back in 1989 nonresidents were first allowed to deer hunt in Iowa, and nonresident tags have gradually increased over the years. All these changes barely slowed herd growth, and record harvests became the norm in most years.
The winds of change in regulations and hunting have been blowing for several years. Back in 1998 the IDNR polled landowners and learned that most wanted no change in the deer population. That made a dramatic turnaround as deer numbers climbed. In a similar 2002 poll three-fourths of landowners wanted deer numbers reduced. The handwriting was on the wall.
With growing complaints from insurance companies forced to pay increasing claims for deer/car collisions and frustration from farmers over of crop damage, the management goal became reducing deer densities To reach that goal Suchy and the IDNR greatly expanded hunting opportunities, especially the hunting of does, and asked hunters to take advantage of new seasons and abundant tags.
The number of antlerless tags increased nearly fivefold between 2002 and 2005. In that early year 22,695 antlerless tags were sold. The figure was 97,043 extra antlerless tags last season. It did exactly what the IDNR intended. Hunters took an estimated 118,974 does on either their regular statewide tag or special antlerless tags, Suchy helped to implement.
An Iowa native, Suchy is a big man with a rich sense of humor, a solid educational grounding in biology and limitless patience. They are characteristics that serve him well when he's politically squeezed between animal rights activists who don't want any deer hunting, and car insurance companies and legislators who want him to use hunting to beat back the herd. Add into this volatile mix hunters who want a big fall deer population loaded with mature bucks, and it's easy to see that Suchy's job requires the ability of a magician. He must somehow juggle all the varied priorities and opinions, but he's a man who just takes it all in stride.
Talk with him for a while, and it's obvious that he has much respect and appreciation for Iowa's deer hunters. Hunters are the herd management tool of choice, and part of Suchy's job involves managing as much the hunters as the deer. Thanks to our hunters, Suchy and the IDNR have been able to implement seasons that would not be tolerated in other states. Through the 1980's hunters patiently restricted their take of does to enable the herd to grow. Once it reached record levels they enthusiastically embraced doe hunting to help stabilize and even slightly reduce the herd size.
"We have a tradition in Iowa that deer are good to eat and does are just as tasty as bucks," he said. "In some states, notably Pennsylvania, there have been big controversies among hunters when biologists encourage taking more does to trim herds. That's not been the case in Iowa. For several years antlerless tags were coveted, and as the number of doe tags increased hunters bought them and shot females. The 2003 season was the first when more does than bucks were shot."
It was all part of the IDNR's plan to reduce the deer herd in response to complaints from farmers about crop damage and rising auto insurance claims resulting from collisions. More does than bucks were also shot in 2004 and 2005, and Suchy's population modeling shows that deer numbers across the state should decline 15-20% this year. That may make farmers and insurance companies happy but leaves some hunters nervous wondering if we've overdone it.
A lot depends of perspective and hunting area. As a general rule hunters in much of northern and central Iowa have reduced deer numbers, but there are many pockets of dense populations. Often those are in urban areas and places where hunters have difficulty gaining access. And, southern Iowa has far more deer than landowners or the IDNR want.
"One of the challenges of managing Iowa's deer is getting enough hunters
into areas where deer herds are too high and need trimming," said Suchy.
This includes a vast area of southern Iowa and urban areas.
"The general strategy has been to offer incentives to hunters to take deer in areas where there are too many. That's why we offered extra antlerless tags in southern Iowa and why we established a rifle season there last January. We thought some hunters would be interested in using a rifle and would head down south."
It's a strategy that tends to work.
"I know several hunters who wanted to hunt with rifles. They bought tags for southern Iowa. Even though the weather was terrible during the limited rifle season they had a good time, and they took some deer," said Suchy.
For years shoguns, handguns, and muzzleloaders have been the only firearms legal for deer hunting. All are perceived as short range deer taking tools, and it has been widely believe that rifles are dangerous because of the extreme distance they can hurl a bullet.
"In fact we had no safety problems with rifles this past season," the biologist remarked. "Also, in the past 20 years there have been tremendous technological advances in both shotguns and slugs and muzzleloaders. It's now possible to buy premium shotgun shells that use a rifle or handgun bullet rather than a slug. Accuracy and range are far improved over the slugs available just a decade ago. A few years ago muzzle loading rifles passed the 2000 feet per second mark in velocity, and some of them now approach 2500 fps. These are the ballistics of a 1960 era 30-30 rifle and they're legal statewide," said Suchy.
He did remark that no matter how potent muzzleloaders become they are still single shot rifles.
"We haven't noticed that these technologies have greatly increased the take of deer. Iowa deer hunters have always been effective, even with old style Foster slugs. Many shotgun hunters use drives, and deer are shot at close range, so the older slugs are effective. The new technologies appeal to hunters who enjoy marksmanship," he said.
A fairly new trend that troubles Suchy, and should be of concern to all Iowa deer hunters, is the growing number of non-resident licenses that the IDNR is selling.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with selling nonresident tags. It brings dollars to our state that help the IDNR as well as motels and café's in popular hunting areas. And, we have the deer to handle some nonresident pressure. The problem is that we don't have the ability to distribute nonresidents well. We need to find a way to better distribute the hunting pressure from nonresidents so that it doesn't unfairly impact resident hunters," he said.
A complaint by hunters is that nonresidents buy or lease large tracts of deer habitat and quickly put up NO TRESPASSING signs, sometimes excluding residents who have hunted the area for years.
"Nonresidents are generally interested in harvesting big bucks. When they post land it tends to reduce hunter density and makes it very hard to take enough does off that property to meet population goals. It is land that our resident hunters can't access," he said.
Suchy has strongly supported the establishment of special hunts, including the establishment of legal hunting within city limits of Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, and other cities. The need for herd reduction came from homeowners having landscape and garden deer damage and city governments worried about increasing vehicle collisions. Many cities took his advice and legalized bowhunting. Iowa City bucked the trend and hires sharpshooters to kill deer. It reduces deer numbers but comes at a high cost to taxpayers.
Establishing urban seasons often puts the affable biologist squarely between animal rights activists opposed to hunting and hunters, gardeners, and motorists. He's appeared at dozens of meetings of urban deer task forces. Some have been highly contentious, but his patience and insistence on sticking to lessons learned by research has earned him the respect of many Iowans and led to the opening of urban bowhunting.
The Cedar Rapids season is a good example. Following years of debate the hunt was launched in 2005 and despite the warnings voiced by opponents bowhunters harvested almost 300 deer within the city without serious incident.
"Whenever there's a significant change in a hunting season it takes about three years to work the bugs out and to gain public acceptance," said Suchy. "Urban seasons are no exception, and they've become accepted in many places where overpopulated deer were causing problems. After a few years many urban residents aren't even aware that there is a deer season in progress." Although it takes three years following major regulation changes for controversies to quiet and hunters get accustomed to new seasons, change has been the norm the past dozen years. Iowa's hunters are adjusting well. Unlike other states that are seeing shocking declines in hunter numbers, the ranks of Iowa deer hunters continue to rise with each new opportunity. In 2005, for example, the IDNR issued 387,585 licenses. That's up 34,413 from just the year before.
The big question now is what hunters can expect this fall and in future years. At the time this article was written that's partially unknown. Suchy's population statistics show a deer herd decline of 15 to 20 percent following last season's record harvest. That is very close to the target set by the IDNR.
"If we continue this level of harvest through the 2007 season the deer herd will drop 30 to 35 percent," he said. "That's well below the Department's goal, and I recommend reducing the number of antlerless deer we kill in 2006."
Unfortunately, Suchy's recommendations aren't always heeded. On a number of occasions the Legislature has tinkered with regulations. Under pressure from insurance companies, farmers, and gardeners they've increased the number of antlerless tags. Whether the lawmakers will heed the biologist or ignore his suggestions is unknown.
Suchy would like to fine tune regulations by reducing the number of antlerless tags in areas where state population reductions have been met or exceeded. That's mostly northern and western Iowa. Regulations will be tailored to lure hunters to areas of high deer populations, especially in southern Iowa. Suchy would like to use regulations to disperse nonresidents but it's unlikely that will happen. If the biologist gets his way there will still be plenty of antlerless tags for sale but hunters may have to drive to parts of the state where deer herds need more pressure.
Special hunts are likely to continue and offer some of the state's best hunting. Often those are in urban areas close to where many hunters live. The hunts are especially good news for hunters who live in our largest cities. Some of the best deer hunting is very close to home. However, anyone interested in hunting an urban special season should prepare well in adv
ance. Many are limited to archers, and some require passing a proficiency test.
Hunters should also get a copy of the new regulation booklet soon after it hits the press. Many seasons offer a set number of antlerless tags on a first come first served basis. It makes sense to plan early and buy tags well ahead of the season opener.
For years Iowa has set record harvests each year. It looks like that trend is over, and we may see a reduction in the 2006 season. That's not all bad news.
Many years of heavily hunting does has resulted in management for large bucks. Iowa is one of the best states for harvesting a Boone and Crockett buck. Essentially Iowa has been practicing quality deer management for years. A heavy doe harvest combined with the outstanding genetics of our deer results in big bucks with huge racks. Although the total number of deer may be slightly lower this fall many of them will be big bucks.
Even though the deer harvest may decline slightly this fall, we have a great season to anticipate.