Iowa's deer-hunting prospects are excellent once again this season, but there are changes on the horizon (October 2009)
Our prediction for deer hunting prospects in Iowa this year? Deer hunting in the Hawkeye State will be as good this fall and winter as it has been for the past 10 or 15 years -- but it may not be as easy.
Changes in our deer population have altered how relatively "good" or "easy" deer hunting has been in Iowa in recent years. Deer numbers rose rapidly during the mid-1990s, peaked in 2006 and have stayed relatively high through the rest of the decade. Hunting regulations and seasons were dramatically liberalized in 2003 to increase the deer kill to deal with a population that had reached socially unacceptable levels by 2002.
The result: For the past six years, hunters have had multiple seasons with numerous license opportunities to kill deer from a large population. Hunting was not only good; for hunters in some parts of the state, it was almost easy.
That's changing. Iowa's overall deer population has declined in the face of increased hunting pressure. Data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources indicate the female portion of our deer herd has declined by more than 25 percent, statewide.
That's good. The IDNR's carefully developed deer population goals for each of the 20 wildlife management units in the state are based on available habitat, the frequency of car/deer accidents, deer damage to crops and hunter input. Hunter success and satisfaction were critical parts of the eventual management plan.
"Hunting is how we manage our deer herd in Iowa," said Willie Suchy, IDNR wildlife research supervisor. "We use regulations and (hunting) seasons to encourage hunters to take more or fewer deer in the individual counties, depending on the goals for each county."
As the IDNR's deer managers carefully steer Iowa's deer herd toward its optimum population for Iowa, they concede they may have overshot that goal in some areas.
In northwest and north-central Iowa, where agricultural land outnumbers deer-friendly timberlands and hunters can more easily find and harvest deer, deer numbers have reached or slipped slightly below regional IDNR goals. Litchfield said regulations and seasons could be more restrictive by 2010 in that region to allow the deer herd to recover slightly.
In far northeast Iowa and far southeast Iowa, deer populations are still higher than wildlife managers' goals, thanks to near-perfect mixes of farm fields and timber that make those regions veritable deer factories. Deer numbers in our southern two tiers of counties are also still slightly above IDNR goals.
Those parts of the state will see similar regulations and seasons this year as they did last year, with a few counties gaining additional antlerless tags to increase pressure on localized populations of deer.
Counties in far northeast Iowa and the southern two tiers of counties with high populations of deer will again offer the Bonus January Season for antlerless deer, and some of the southern counties will again offer centerfire rifle hunting during that season.
"That Bonus January Season and the centerfire rifle opportunity have proved to be really popular," said Tom Litchfield, IDNR deer management biologist. "There's a tradition developing, where hunters from other parts of the state travel to southern Iowa for one final deer hunt of the year. It's helping bring the deer herd in that part of the state closer to our population goals."
Suchy noted that the Bonus January Season made a big difference in final harvest totals for counties where deer numbers are still too strong. He cited Decatur County as an example from the 2008-09 season.
"Coming out of the second shotgun season, things didn't look very promising for meeting our goal in Decatur County," he said. "But by the end of that January season, hunters had killed an additional 1,000 antlerless deer in that county alone. I think that shows how popular that season has become and how effective it can be in reducing deer numbers."
Litchfield and Suchy said the majority of the state is rapidly approaching a population of deer close to IDNR goals.
"Before last year's hunting seasons, there were 15 counties of concern (due to deer populations that had not declined in those counties) in central and west-central Iowa," said Litchfield. "This year I'm looking at maybe five counties that need special attention. We'll adjust hunting regulations this year to increase the pressure in counties that need more deer killed, maybe decrease pressure in counties where we've caught up with the herd, and fine-tune things across most of the state. The way things are going, the bulk of Iowa should be at our objective deer population in two years, which is a deer population that supports an annual harvest of around 110,000 to 130,000 deer per year."
Good Hunting, Fewer Deer
That brings us back to our opening statement about deer hunting this fall and winter being "good" but maybe not as "easy" as in recent years. The most recent survey indicates the majority of hunters in Iowa were satisfied with their deer hunting experience. That's good, because prospects, regulations and licensing for this year's hunts will be very similar to last year.
The final harvest totals for this year's hunting seasons will be slightly decreased as Iowa's deer herd eases toward a reduced but more acceptable long-term population. Last year, hunters reported killing 142,194 deer in Iowa. That's down 4,020 from the previous year. Indications are this year's harvest will probably decline by another 4,000 to 5,000 deer as wildlife managers zero in on their goal of around 130,000 deer killed each year
Hunters may question the prospect of "declining" deer harvests because it implies poorer deer hunting, but Litchfield says that sheer numbers don't describe the quality of hunting in Iowa.
"When deer numbers were too high, hunters were getting multiple licenses and killing multiple deer, sometimes without working very hard for them," he said. "It's interesting that we're now getting comments from hunters that they aren't seeing as many deer, but they're still getting enough deer."
Litchfield said deer managers listen closely to hunters' comments about deer hunting in Iowa. "When we start to get comments like we're hearing from northwest and north-central Iowa -- that deer numbers are way down and they're actually not killing as many deer -- then we know we need to closely evaluate the area herd and maybe need to tighten the regulations," he said. Hard data from surveys and harvest reports are the basis for the
IDNR's management policies, but, "comments from sportsmen play a big role in determining if the current population or trend is 'right' for an area," according to Litchfield.
The goal of deer managers is to achieve a delicate balance of enough deer in Iowa to satisfy the majority of hunters without having so many deer that the IDNR must field excessive complaints about crop damage or car/deer accident claims. Iowa's deer herd is moving toward that critical point. Hunters in some parts of the state are starting to grumble about having to hunt harder to get their deer. Crop depredation claims are declining or at least stable. Statistics for car/deer accident reports to authorities have declined for the past two years. As noted by Terry Haindfield, the IDNR's wildlife management biologist for far northeast Iowa, "When everybody is a little mad at us (about deer numbers), we know we must be just about right."
Last Year's Harvest, By The Numbers
With an understanding that fewer total deer won't necessarily mean poorer hunting, let's take a look at last year's harvest to get a sense of how many deer we'll have available to hunt this year and where might be the best places to find them.
Total harvest figures are straightforward: As mentioned earlier, shotgunners, bowhunters, muzzleloaders, centerfire riflemen and handgunners in Iowa reported killing 142,194 deer during our latest hunting seasons. Clayton County again was our top deer-producing county, totaling 6,738 deer.
Van Buren and Allamakee counties continued their decade-long battle for runner-up, with Van Buren County taking second place last year with 4,438 deer compared with Allamakee County's 4,009 deer.
Davis County (3,343 deer) and Jackson County (3,342) rounded out last year's top five deer-producing counties in Iowa.
At the other end of the deer-production statistics, Grundy County's relatively treeless farmlands may be some of the best agricultural land in the world but supplied only 118 deer to hunters last year.
Next to last in deer kills was Calhoun County, with 133 deer tallied. Ten counties in north-central and northwest Iowa tallied fewer than 300 deer.
It's important when looking at harvest totals to realize that sheer numbers may not indicate optimum places to hunt. At first glance, it might seem that Grundy County would be the hardest place in Iowa to get a deer, while Clayton County would be the easiest. Litchfield is hesitant to make such blanket statements.
"Our statistics only tell us how many deer were killed in a county," he said. "They don't track how many hours a hunter spent getting that deer. A hunter could have hunted hard and long in Butler County with an antlerless tag, then slid over to Allamakee County for the last day of the season to finally kill a deer, and our stats won't show all the unsuccessful effort he put into Butler County.
"It's difficult to quantify success with the sheer number of deer killed," said Litchfield. Plymouth County (in northwest Iowa,) may not post as many deer kills as Van Buren County (in far southeast Iowa), but it's hard to measure if the Plymouth County hunters have to work harder or not as hard to get a deer as guys in Van Buren County.
"There are fewer deer in Plymouth County but fewer hunters, too, so it could be that the fewer hunters kill proportionally as many deer (in Plymouth County) as the hunters in Van Buren County."
While a few areas of Iowa are still dealing with local deer herds above or below the IDNR's goals, the majority of the state is nearing regional population goals for deer.
Scott Peterson is wildlife management biologist for seven counties in west-central Iowa, including Guthrie County, which ranked 20th in total deer harvested during 2008-2009 hunting seasons. "Guthrie County, along with Dallas and Boone counties, may still have more deer than optimum," he said. "The nice thing about those counties is that they all have significant areas of public hunting.
"Boone County has more than 11,000 acres associated with the upper end of Saylorville Reservoir," said Peterson. "Dallas County has some nice public lands associated with the three forks of the Raccoon River, and Guthrie County has Elk Grove Wildlife Area. I was at Elk Grove a couple times this year, and it really impressed me with the nice blend it has of timber and open areas. Good deer habitat."
Peterson noted that not all "good" deer habitat looks like "good" deer habitat. "Bays Branch is a waterfowl management area east of Yale in Guthrie County," he said, "but it has some timbered areas and brushy areas that produce nice deer. It's a good example of how deer in Iowa take advantage of even marginal habitat."
Suchy, who has been involved with deer management and deer hunting in Iowa for decades, said the success of Iowa's deer hunters -- and, therefore, the success of the IDNR's deer management strategies -- is due largely to the expertise of local hunters during our two shotgun seasons.
"Our shotgun seasons are relatively short compared to other states, and that encourages our hunters to hunt aggressively and take does to ensure they tag a deer before the season ends," said Suchy. "On top of that, a lot of our hunters have hunted the same areas for years and really know where the deer are and how to get them."
Suchy emphasized that hunters have been the key to Iowa's progress toward an "optimum" deer herd size that will provide good hunting, if not easy hunting, for years to come. "I was at a wildlife managers' conference last March at Purdue (University), and listened to managers from other states complain that their deer herds are out of control and they can't figure out how to kill enough deer," Suchy said. "They've got huge problems with auto/deer accidents and crop damage and are looking at public relations nightmares if they can't figure out a way to dramatically reduce their deer herds.
"They're having a tough time with hunters who shoot only bucks and refuse to kill does, so their deer populations keep climbing. I wanted to stand up and brag about how hunters in Iowa have stepped up and done a tremendous job of helping us harvest antlerless deer in order to bring our deer herd down to where it needs to be."
Suchy said that deer hunters in Iowa tallied an overall success rate of around 40 percent in recent years. "That's pretty good, when you consider that there are bow and muzzleloader hunters who pass up dozens of shots, waiting for a certain buck. Some of those guys may not tag a deer all season. The other side of our success rate is hunters who really work the system, get a lot of different tags for different weapons and different seasons, and legally kill half a dozen or more deer every year. There's good hunting for both kinds of hunters in Iowa."
So, deer hunting in Iowa will be good again this year. It might even be easy, depending on which seasons you hunt, where you hunt, how often you go afield -- and whether or not you can actually hit what you're aiming at with your gun or b