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Deer Overpopulation's Effect on Iowa

posted on November 2, 2007 at 10:19 AM

The question is, is the economic activity the deer population stimulates worth the damage that they cause?

And with us to sort through that question are two members of the Department of Natural Resources. James Coffey is a wildlife research technician, and Tom Litchfield is a state deer biologist.

First question everybody wants to know: Are we seeing more deer in the state of Iowa now than ever before?

Litchfield: Overall, actually deer numbers are on a decline throughout the state. However, at this time of year, deer sightings actually increase due to the oncoming breeding season in the state.

Yeager: We're seeing deer breeding right now, and they're also losing some habitat not because of construction but because the cornfields are disappearing and the bean harvest.

Litchfield: Right. As agricultural fields are harvested, that restricts deer more and more to the forested and brushy areas so, in essence, it increases the density in those areas.

Yeager: And we're also traveling more at times of the day where the deer are moving, right? Isn't that also part of it too? We're going to practices more, we’re staying later, we're out till 7:00. We haven’t had a clock change yet. That’s about to happen. But we're in those time periods and we're just hitting them more, or is that just made up?

Litchfield: No, our society is definitely traveling more than it used to, and as you log more miles on the highways, that just increases your exposure to the possibility of hitting a deer.

Yeager: So does the DNR need to change their deer population numbers? Do they need to -- I've seen PSA campaigns where they've said don't veer for deer, be on the lookout, travel in these points. Do you need to do a little more in the education sense or thinning the herd, increasing the herd? What do you anticipate will be the –-

Litchfield: Actually, we need to do both. Education is always good because there's always going to be deer in the state. They're a valued resource in the state, and avoiding the deer collision entails paying good attention while you’re driving down the roads, looking at the ditches. You want to see that deer before it enters the highway. But also the department feels that deer numbers have gotten too high, and for the last two years we've been working at reducing those populations, and we have been going in that direction throughout the state.

Yeager: Is that because of just paying attention more or is it because those deer whistles on the front of our cars are working more? Do those things work?

Litchfield: No, the deer whistles don't work. Paying attention, driving slower is what works best.

Yeager: So you, the DNR, has to balance a couple of things very importantly when it comes to deer. You're thinking of the hunter, you're thinking of the farmer, and you're thinking of the landowners or anybody who's driving a car. How do you strike a balance between those three main things?

Litchfield: It's very difficult to strike a perfect balance. What we try to do is listen to all the constituents' interests in Iowa that have a stake in Iowa's deer herd and balance it the best we can. Our current strategy is to reduce deer herd numbers throughout the state back to the mid '90s level. At that time surveys showed that most farmers felt good about deer numbers. There’s plenty of deer for people to hunt. It is a renewable resource and vehicle collisions were down approximately 10 to 15 percent, in that level.

Yeager: We see that. And, tom, you just moved back into the state, so you weren't here last fall as much. But, Jim, do you think this fall -- what do you anticipate the hunters will see when they go out there? Are they going to see those deer? You said it's decreased a little bit the last couple of years. What do you anticipate?

Coffey: It's going to strongly depend on the part of the state they're in. Obviously in the southern two tiers of the state where we’re still issuing those antlerless licenses, there will be pockets of heavy deer concentrations. Where I personally deer hunt, where we shoot 75 percent does in our party, we have seen a dramatic increase in the deer population. And we do that out of respect for the farmer that's allowing us to hunt that land. We’re telling him we will help you with that by reducing those – by shooting those doe deer.

Yeager: So it's an education for the hunter -–

Coffey: Absolutely.

Yeager: I mean there's always safety concerns, but you're also educating. Most hunters always want that buck that's got the rack that’s out to here. If you would just shoot the doe, you would take care of a couple because she's going to have a couple this year and next year, and it just grows. So how do you tell somebody you can't have that big buck, that you’ve got to go to a doe?

Coffey: You don't tell them they can't have that. What most hunters are really looking for is the opportunity to have a chance at a big deer. If they're given the choice between a big deer and a small deer or an antlered deer, they're going to choose the big deer. If you educate them that by passing up that smaller-racked buck and shooting a doe will decrease the deer populations, we're seeing hunters starting to choose to take that doe instead and, in essence, allowing that smaller buck to grow another year and give that hunter a better opportunity the next year for a bigger deer.

Yeager: We've also seen large growth – when we see the large population, we’ve seen different programs grow. One would be the bow hunting season, the controlled bow hunts. That’s where you get a license. I know Ames has one, Iowa City area. Explain how those work and if that's a different license of a different fee that goes on across the state.

Litchfield: Both are specialized urban hunts in sensitive areas where you just can't have firearms hunting, so we restrict it to archery hunting. They've proven to do very well throughout the state, and Jim can give you some examples of a local area, water works park. In many of the parks, we've taken deer densities – or the bow hunters have – from animals roughly 50 per square mile down to 20 per square mile. So they've had a dramatic effect on the localized deer densities.

Yeager: And that's not changed. I mean you don't have to pay a different license to shoot a buck, a male, or a doe, female deer, right? And either it’s a bow or a shotgun or a muzzleloader --

Coffey: You're going to make those choices when you purchase your license. If you're going to hunt in one of those specialized zones, then those licenses are restricted to that area. We do allow some movement around with your general statewide license but, in essence, the city entity or the municipality that has control will have some additional regulations that you have to fulfill. Some checking in and checking out, some having the signature of the police authority or local landowner that's inside the city limits.

Yeager: But overall if I go out tomorrow and hunt -- well, I can't go out and hunt except bow. But if I go out when the season opens in December, the fee structure is not different for a doe over a buck, or is it?

Coffey: No. Unless you start to buy additional doe tags.

Yeager: Okay.

Coffey: Once you buy your second additional doe tag, then there is a fee reduction of $10.

Yeager: Do you think that -- do you think that a fee structure would maybe help keep some of that population down if you said if you buy a doe license it might be cheaper than a buck license to try to help that population?

Coffey: I would personally say, in essence, no because the fees themselves are not exorbitant. Most people are more concerned about the gas they're burning to go hunting. The fee is a very reasonable fee.

Yeager: You've talked about gas and you’ve talked about licenses. Those are two big economic factors. There was a U.S. fish and wildlife survey. That number has jumped three times in just five years, from about 47 million to a much larger 300-plus number. Economics of deer hunting is big in this state. I mean there's a lot of people who benefit from this. Do you have people who call and say we don't want you to change a thing?

Litchfield: Yeah, but there are those pressures from the various interest groups in the state. But as resource managers, when we're developing season structures for the state, we aren't trying to pencil out the bottom line, you know, how much money is it going to bring in either for the state or our agency. As I mentioned earlier, currently we're on a program trying to reduce the deer herd within many portions of the state, particularly the central and southern portions of the state. If we're successful in that, and we hope we are, we'll actually be reducing our licensed revenue from the deer resource.

Yeager: But probably knocking down that number of three hunters – every three -- four hunters, three hunters are taking a deer. That's what the stats were last year, I believe. So that's that balance we were talking about earlier.

Litchfield: Right. And even with reduced deer populations, you can still maintain those high success rates. It all depends, you know, the amount of time that the individuals put into it and what opportunities you make available to them.

Yeager: We talked a little bit about urban sprawl. We’ve kind of touched around that. You know, Dallas County in this area, Johnson County in Iowa City, both have seen heavily wooded areas have a lot more houses in there. Is that having anything to do with disrupting -- whether it's pheasant, quail, bobcat, which we’ll get to in a moment, but any of those smaller games or larger games? Is the urban sprawl having an impact?

Coffey: I can touch on that. Basically every animal has a specific set of requirements that it needs to survive. Some are more generalistic and some are more specific. Urban sprawl can have a big impact on a small species, with a specific set of habitat requirements. Generalistic species such as deer will rebound and, in many cases, actually increase because you've made more refuge for them.

Yeager: We've seen pheasant season opened up last year, and that's a very big economic thing for the state, and just a lot of hunters, period, go out. How many hunters is it? What's an average hunt for pheasant hunters?

Coffey: Opening day estimates around 120,000. The depressing part for that is that it used to be about 250,000.

Yeager: You're talking birds or hunters?

Coffey: Hunters. Hunters in the field on opening day are about 120,000 estimated this year. It's a very big social event for people in Iowa. They get together with the local firemen. They have their breakfast. They go out and see friends they haven't seen. They see relatives come back from out of state specifically to hunt pheasants. It’s a social activity.

Yeager: Well, there’s a different hunt that’s going on, and this thing has been sitting here for our entire conversation. This is a bobcat. This is a new hunt that is starting this week. Tell me, first of all, what is it and why do we need it.

Coffey: Bobcats are listed in Iowa under the code as a fur-bearing species, which they are and, therefore, the DNR has jurisdiction over regulating that species. We've seen an increase in the population over the last five to seven years to the point now that we can provide opportunities to Iowa. Starting November 3 at 8:00 in the morning during the fur harvester season, you will be allowed to harvest a bobcat for the first time ever in Iowa's history. It's an amazing comeback of a species.

Yeager: And this is a bobcat. This is a stuffed one, of course. He's not live. If he was, he was doing very good. This is what we’re seeing, because there are people who would swear I saw a bobcat. No, you just saw a dog. Turns out they weren't crazy after all. This is probably what they were seeing.

Coffey: It's a very good chance because the population has been increasing, but they are a very secretive species. We actually use our bow hunters to survey our bobcat population. In southern Iowa, especially south central Iowa, you can expect to spend 100 hours in your tree stand for one sighting of a bobcat. So he’s a very secretive species. But we estimate the population is at the point that it has continued to grow at 7 to 10 percent a year. We can have a limited harvest of 150 animals in the southern two tiers of counties and not impact the overall population of the species.

Yeager: Will they impact other things whether it's pheasants or will they, you know, eat -–

Coffey: Are you concerned about squirrels and rabbits and mice? About 95 percent of their diet is small rodents or squirrels, rabbits, or mice. They are opportunistic. They will have an impact on individual animals, obviously, but an individual bobcat, female, will cover anywhere from 9 to 12 square miles.

Yeager: Very good. We'll have to have another show just about bobcats. Gentlemen, Tom Litchfield, Jim Coffey, from the DNR, thank you very much for coming in tonight.

Tags: animals deer DNR hunting Iowa pheasants