Iowa’s deer herd, on a downward trajectory since 2006, is at target levels in most of the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
While many hunters would say the herd has shrunk too much, representatives of several interest groups including farmers, producers of horticultural crops, insurance companies and motorcyclists say the state still has too many deer.
“Statewide, we are at the mid-to-late 1990s level, which was the goal,” said Tom Litchfield, the biologist who manages the state’s deer.
That goal needs to be re-evaluated, said Jim Fink of rural Urbana, who regards deer from the perspective of both an organic farmer and a motorcyclist.
“There are still too many deer. The goal is not in step with reality,” said Fink, a member of an ad hoc group that contends deer destroy too many crops and compromise the safety of motorists.
Going into the 2013 deer hunting seasons, which began Saturday with the youth hunt, Iowa had an estimated 435,000 deer, which compares with an estimated 650,000 at the herd’s peak in 2006, Litchfield said.
That 33 percent reduction has been accomplished primarily through increased hunting pressure on does, which typically raise twin fawns in Iowa’s deer-friendly environment.
“We think it is going in the right direction, but we think the herd needs further reduction,” said Steve Morain, executive director of the Iowa Insurance Institute.
Morain said deer-vehicle collisions cause more than $75 million in property damage each year in Iowa, “and that doesn’t count loss of lives and injuries.”
Farmers also think Iowa still has too many deer, according to an Iowa Farm Bureau-sponsored telephone survey conducted in December.
Of 600 respondents, 47.5 percent said the herd remains too large, and nearly 65 percent said that the number of antlerless deer hunting tags issued by the DNR should stay the same or be increased.
Last year, the DNR proposed reducing the number of antlerless deer tags by 26,000 for the 2012-2013 hunting season. The department later trimmed the reduction to 13,000 tags on the recommendation of Gov. Terry Branstad.
The reductions were accomplished by eliminating the November antlerless season, shortening by a week the January antlerless season and reducing quotas in 20 Eastern Iowa counties.
Last year’s antlerless tag quota of 119,900 will be reduced to 115,950 this year, with the 3,900 fewer tags spread among six southwest Iowa counties.
The state actually sold 104,261 antlerless only licenses last year –a nearly 16 percent reduction in the 123,416 antlerless-only licenses sold the preceding year, according to Litchfield.
In addition to the reduction in licenses available, some hunters, concerned that deer were becoming too scarce, stopped buying antlerless tags, Litchfield said.
Based on that quota reduction and hunters’ restraint, just 48 percent of the deer harvested in Iowa last year were does, marking the first time in eight years that does did not constitute a majority of the Iowa deer harvested, according to Litchfield.
Avid deer hunter Rick White of Cedar Rapids, a member of the Hunter’s Specialties pro staff, said he used to buy and fill doe tags to help with the herd reduction effort but has stopped doing so.
Despite what he considers the recent overharvest of does, White said he thinks Iowa still offers some of the finest deer hunting in the nation.
“No question, deer numbers are down,” said Randy Taylor of Reasnor, a board member of the Iowa Bowhunters Association.
Given the competing pressures to which the DNR is subject, Taylor said he thinks it “is doing a pretty decent job of managing the herd.”
Last year’s total reported kill — 115,608 deer – was about 4.8 percent below the 2011 harvest. This year’s harvest will be about the same as last year’s, Litchfield said.
About 80 percent of Iowa’s counties have reached or exceeded the DNR’s goal of a stable population at a level comparable to the mid-to-late 1990s – a level capable of sustaining an estimated annual harvest of 100,000 to 120,000 deer.
Thirty-three counties, primarily in north-central and northwestern Iowa, are currently at or slightly below the department’s goal. An additional 48 counties in eastern, central, and southern portions of the state are at goal. Deer numbers are still above the department’s goal in 18 counties, mainly in central and south-central Iowa.