Courier Staff Writer
Deer numbers continue to drop, which means hunters can truly “hunt” again.
In the entire state, the deer harvest declined for the seventh year in a row, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. From its peak in 2006, harvest numbers are down 23 percent.
“From a hunter’s perspective, now they’re back to a hunt,” said Kurt Baker, director of the Wapello County Conservation Board. “It was not hard to harvest deer back then [in 2006], but now hunters have got to spend more time on the pursuit. It’s back to what it should be, I guess.”
During Ottumwa’s eighth deer season for bow hunters, which ended on Jan. 20, Police Chief Jim Clark said 45 hunters registered with the Ottumwa Police Department to participate in the program. They harvested a total of 48 deer, down from the 2011-12 season, when 66 deer were harvested by 36 registered hunters.
Baker said the focus of deer management is to get the herd size to a reasonable, sustainable level, “meaning we don’t need 50 deer per square mile.”
“That has too much of an impact on agriculture and natural habitats,” Baker said of deer overpopulation.
In the 2012 season, hunters statewide reported 115,606 deer to the harvest reporting system. Those hunters purchased 378,447 licenses, which also dropped nearly 14,500 from the 2011 season. These drops are due to the “elimination of the three-day November antlerless season, a shortening of the January antlerless season and reduced antlerless license quotas in some counties,” according to the IDNR.
Baker said those with antlerless permits are shooting more does (the producers), which has contributed to the population decline.
“If there’s a region of high deer density, the [IDNR] will issue more antlerless permits,” he said. “So you cut back on the number of producers, and you obviously cut back on the annual recruitment, or number of deer.”
In August, Parks Director Gene Rathje told the Courier that Ottumwa’s deer hunting program had reduced the local deer population by more than 600 since the program began in 2005.
From an environmental standpoint, reduced deer herds is a positive.
“Back in 2006, in the peak of deer harvest, deer hunters were spoiled,” Baker said. “They’d go out and see 25 deer a night. It was not uncommon at all. Now in the same area you’ll see two, three, four, maybe none.”
But in 2006, Baker said farmers probably saw far more crop deprivation problems from deer feeding on the crops and reducing yields.
Another confounding issue that contributed to last year’s reduced deer herd was EHD, or Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease.
“That was a disease as a result of dry conditions and not very many water sources,” Baker said. “Deer would go a distance to get to these water sources, and they might get bit by a biting fly or midge that carried the disease.”
EHD had a profound impact in southeast Iowa especially, he said, resulting in tens of thousands of deer deaths.
“Southeast Iowa saw the biggest infestation of EHD,” Baker said. “There’s more deer down here, for one. And it’s just a combination of environmental conditions ... and a concentration of smaller water sources.”
And while Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) did affect a number of confined deer in southeast Iowa last year, Baker said that had no affect on the overall population reduction.
“But it could if it ever gets a hold, if we begin seeing CWD in wild populations and it spreads within that population,” he said.
Deer hunting in Iowa brought an economic impact of nearly $214 million last year, according to the IDNR, and Baker said Iowa has not suffered an economic loss as a result of lower deer numbers.
“Iowa is still regarded as a tremendous trophy deer state, and as long as that status is maintained, a lot of [out-of-staters] will want to hunt white-tailed deer in Iowa,” he said. “But if the populations dip even further, then that’s an issue. But where we’re at right now, there’s still a sizable number of non-resident people who want to come to Iowa to hunt.”
Reduced deer numbers affect the length of the hunting season, and Baker said seasons already have and may continue to see an impact. As the IDNR fine-tunes the deer population size this year, Baker said hunting regulations will reflect those changes.
“If we are approaching the desired herd size, probably the deer season length will remain very similar to what we’ve seen this year,” he said. “If it continues to decline, hunting opportunities will shorten somewhat. As long as we maintain a healthy deer population, a lot of people will be deer hunting in Iowa.”