Annual Deer Population Survey Underway

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One more blanket of snow would help. Aerial deer surveys are just about done across Iowa. Another four to six inch snowfall, though, could be enough to let wildlife biologists wrap up those winter counts; a key element in the formula to track deer numbers in a state with red-hot interest in the whitetail's appetite, travel patterns and reproductive capacity.

The early word indicates a downturn in overall numbers. Still, debate extends from the Iowa Legislature to community task forces to informal coffee shop roundtables, as Iowans map out the best way to reduce crumpled fenders and nighttime raids on hosta beds, yet still enjoy our biggest 'big game.' Early this month, with about half the survey results returned, Department of Natural Resources biologist Willy Suchy noted a 12 percent downturn. That reflects the heavy emphasis on hunters to take more does during the fall and winter seasons. Most of the 84,000 extra antlerless deer tags available were sold out.

While the aerial surveys are an important element, though, there is more to the picture. "We also do a spring spotlighting survey. We look at deer-vehicle accident figures. We also review hunter survey cards to get all the harvest information," explains DNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. "After putting that together, we get an idea of the deer population; whether it's going up, down or if it is stable."

Several 'deer heavy' areas show a drop. In Allamakee and Winneshiek counties, surveyors saw a noticeable decrease in deer counted. In his five counties, Thompson is seeing all three trends. "Counts in (rural) Linn and Benton counties were down quite a bit. That followed a 14 inch snowfall, too; really good conditions for flying surveys," noted Thompson. "In Cedar and (rural) Johnson County, some areas were up; others were down." He points out that those flights were over three inches of snow; considered marginal conditions. With scarce snow cover, deer are hard to identify against the brown landscape. Objects like stumps and melted-through-to-the ground deer beds also resemble deer, as surveyors look down from 400 feet in the air, moving 80 miles an hour. Final figures for Cedar Rapids are not complete, yet. His crew has yet to fly Washington County.

For urban areas, that eye in the sky is often a helicopter; providing a closer, slower moving look at the landscape below. Iowa City-which pays sharpshooters to kill deer-and Coralville-which allows bow hunters to do likewise-are a focal point of the deer debate. Thompson outlined this winter's count at the Iowa City Deer Task Force meeting last Tuesday. The aerial tally showed 871 deer in 13 Iowa City/Coralville sectors. Lack of snow cover prevented a flyover last year. In 2003, the count was 1,026.

Thompson cautioned task force members that the figures are a one day 'snapshot;' not a hard total that is easily compared year to year. For instance, he points out that current development has dropped numbers in the formerly 'deer-dense' Peninsula area. On the other hand, deer numbers have jumped significantly in the wooded area south of the Oakdale Correctional Center, with no hunting allowed. "It indicates (communities) probably have to continue to do something every year," observed Thompson.

He also noted that Iowa City's sharpshooting program sometimes preceded and sometimes followed the winter counts. This month, for instance, sharpshooters killed 154 deer, shortly after the flyover. With another snowfall, Thompson hopes to re-fly the route, to see whether a corresponding drop appears.

Results from all the statewide surveys are being reviewed, as biologists make deer management recommendations. By April, the state's Natural Resource Commission reviews them, ahead of its season-setting decisions.

Deer By Numbers

Though statewide counts-estimates actually-are still a couple months away; most of the 28 special hunts across Iowa have deer harvest figures.

Bow hunters in Coralville killed 107 deer; 89 of them does. In Dubuque, the same number of does was harvested, out of about 100 total. In Johnson County's Kent Park, 37 deer were taken by shotgun or bow hunters. That doe/buck ratio is important. "The key to herd reduction is to reduce the number of female deer," notes DNR depredation biologist Greg Harris. "No male deer is ever going to have a fawn."

Of 154 antlerless deer targeted by sharpshooters in Iowa City, 97 were does. In Iowa, Iowa City has the only sharpshooting program-paying to have deer killed and processed.

Macbride, Palisades-Kepler Deer Meeting Seeks Public Comment

Faced with growing deer numbers within park boundaries, residents around two state parks will be asked for their input about the prospect of restricted deer hunts next season.

Park officials at Lake Macbride State Park, west of Solon and Palisades-Kepler State Park, west of Mount Vernon, will ask for public comment March 7, at 7 p.m. in the Solon Middle School auditorium, 313 South Iowa Street. The joint session is planned, since the parks are just a few miles apart.

Increased numbers of deer in the parks, documented through annual winter surveys have resulted in noticeable 'browse damage' in park vegetation. There currently is no hunting in Macbride's 2,180 acres nor in Palisades-Kepler's 840 acres.

Scoring Points With Antlers

Find out how your deer rack 'scores' by stopping by the DNR's Southeast District office, at Lake Darling State Park, March 2 or 3. District wildlife supervisor Don Pfeiffer will measure antlers from noon until 8 p.m. each day, or until the last antler is measured. Pfeiffer is a certified measurer for Iowa Trophy Deer, Pope and Young, Boone and Crockett and Longhunter Society. The service is free.

The district office is three miles west of Brighton, on Highway 1 and 78. Reserve a time by calling 319-694-2430. Otherwise measurements will be done first come, first served. Allow about 20 minutes for each set of antlers to be scored. The session corresponds with the waiting period to allow 'green' antlers, taken in the most recent Iowa seasons to 'dry.' Pfeiffer encourages antler owners, though, to bring in any old sets that might be around the house, also.