The state’s deer population, in decline since 2006 in response to hunters’ intensified efforts to kill does, is down another 10 percent this year, according to Department of Natural Resources research biologist Tom Litchfield.
Hunters will see fewer deer than they are accustomed to during the upcoming shotgun seasons, Saturday through Dec. 5 and Dec. 8 through Dec. 16, Litchfield said.
“On a statewide basis, the herd is very close to objective, which would be the levels seen in the mid to late 1990s,” he said.
In fact, one measure of the success of the effort to downsize the deer herd, deer-vehicle crashes, is at its lowest level in 25 years, according to the DNR.
During the past two years, the average number of road-killed deer per 1 billion miles driven on rural Iowa highways is 558, which compares with an average of 544 in 1985 and 1986.
During the peak road kill years, 2004 and 2005, which coincided with the state’s peak deer harvest years, the comparable average was 782, according to Department of Transportation statistics.
Iowa’s annual deer harvests have declined steadily from a peak of 211,451 in 2004-05 to 121,407 last year.
Randy Taylor, chairman of the legislative committee of the Iowa Bowhunters Association, said he’s not surprised at the DNR forecast for another reduced harvest.
“Almost to a person, everyone I’ve talked to this fall said they’ve seen fewer deer than last year,” he said.
“We’ve taken the herd down too far,” said Taylor, who on at least 10 recent bow-hunting outings in Boone and Jasper counties said he has failed to see a single deer.
Tim Powers, field director for the Iowa chapter of Whitetails Unlimited, said the Legislature and governor have been ignoring the factual data documenting the shrinkage of the state’s deer herd.
“The facts are going to come out this year,” he said.
Terry Kerns, co-proprietor of the Edgewood Locker, the state’s largest processor of venison, said his business has tracked the declining deer harvests through reduced processing volume.
“Last year we processed about 2,900 whole deer, which was down from 4,000 whole deer at the peak several years ago,” Kerns said.
Kerns, whose employees have registered five deer-vehicle collisions so far this fall, said he thinks the size of the herd has reached “a kind of happy medium right now.”
Litchfield said epizootic hemorrhaging disease, which is suspected of killing at least 3,000 deer this year in 63 Iowa counties, could be a deer mortality “wild card” this year.
Since so many EHD victims die in obscurity, the actual death toll could be five to 10 times higher, he said.
Iowa is usually on the northern fringe of the range of the disease, which is caused by a virus transmitted by the bite of an infected midge, a small insect that flourishes in hot, dry summers.
EHD could strike hard again next year if the drought of 2012 persists, Litchfield said.
Chronic wasting disease, detected within the state for the first time earlier this year, has now yielded 11 positive tests among captive deer. It remains to be seen if the always fatal disease spreads to the state’s wild deer.
In contrast to the state statistics showing a marked decline in deer-vehicle crashes, the nation’s leading auto insurer, State Farm, consistently portrays Iowa as one of the most dangerous states in the union for deer-vehicle crashes.
The State Farm assertion, while technically accurate, is misleading, according to Litchfield.
State Farm, using its claims data and state licensed driver counts from the Federal Highway Administration, calculates the chances of a motorist in each of the 50 states striking a deer over the next 12 months.
In its latest survey released this fall, the five riskiest states (with the odds of hitting a deer in parentheses) were West Virginia (1 in 40), South Dakota (1 in 68), Iowa (1 in 71.9), Michigan (1 in 72.4) and Pennsylvania (1 in 76).
“I call their numbers ‘bookie odds.’ They provide no real measure of the occurrence of deer-vehicle crashes in the landscape where the deer live,” Litchfield said.
Pennsylvania, for example, has several large cities with millions of drivers who seldom experience any real danger of striking a deer, while a much higher percentage of Iowa drivers travel rural roads through deer country, according to Litchfield.
“State Farm’s analysis makes it look like driving rural areas of Pennsylvania is safer than driving rural areas of Iowa, and it’s not,” he said.
Litchfield said there are much better ways to measure the risk of deer-vehicle collisions than by the number of licensed drivers.
“If you look at claims per 100 square miles of area, Iowa ranks 20th among the states,” he said. “If you look at claims per 1,000 miles of rural public roads, Iowa ranks 25th.
The most accurate way to measure the risk of striking a deer, in Litchfield’s estimation, is by claims per billion rural miles driven – a category in which Iowa ranks 15th.