116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Virtually any experienced wildlife control specialist has a good raccoon story or two.
Some incidents showcase the nocturnal creature’s skill and finesse. Wildlife biologist Joe Taylor recalled one case that stood out at his business, Paw Control Wildlife Solutions in Hiawatha.
“The raccoons … traveled to the basement, came up the stairs and ate from the cat food bowl. (The homeowners) couldn’t imagine this sort of thing could be possible anywhere,” he said. “I had to chuckle a little bit — I hadn’t thought of that one.”
Others who have suffered greater levels of destruction aren’t laughing as much. For wildlife control specialists like Ben Stutzman, raccoon calls have been some of his most memorable with Catch’em Critters in Wellman.
After growing up in the country with a pet raccoon who blended in with his family’s cats, he’s seen the best and worst of the little bandits. Sometimes they break into porches to steal bird feed or set up community latrines on the deck.
Other times their determination puts human engineering to shame. One call early in his career involved a mother raccoon who became separated from the den she had made with her offspring in a house. After returning from an outing, she found her usual vent entrance blocked with plywood by homeowners who thought they could solve the problem on their own.
“She decided she was going to make her own way in,” Stutzman said. So the raccoon started by ripping shingles off the roof where the attached garage met the house. When she found sheeting underneath, she kept going. Eventually, she chewed through metal soffit to be reunited with her young.
“Raccoons are just really tough. They are amazing survivalists,” said Stutzman, who has been running his wildlife solutions business for 11 years. “I’ve seen where they chewed through 2-by-4 studs to go laterally through a wall.”
Raccoon population surges
With the raccoon population in Iowa nearly tripling since 2006, more and more homeowners are becoming privy to raccoon stories of their own.
In 2006, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources counted 2,417 raccoons in its nocturnal surveys in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. This year, it counted 6,486 — a surge of over 268 percent in the last 16 years, and an increase of 23 percent in the last year alone, despite localized outbreaks of fatal canine distemper virus.
County data shows Benton and Iowa counties with some of the highest counts in the state. More urban counties, like Linn and Johnson, tend to have lower counts.
From 2019 to 2020, Joe Taylor’s Paw Control Wildlife Solutions saw a 52 percent jump in calls for raccoons. Along with a bigger spike this fall than previous years, the overall raccoon call increase has been sustained through the last three years for his business.
Each year, Paw Control fields over 100 calls for raccoons and captures hundreds of them.
Stutzman’s more rural business hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in raccoon-specific calls, but he’s heard from others who have attracted hundreds of raccoons in their corn patches. Raccoons make up about 25 percent of his calls.
“The last two years, I’ve heard astronomical numbers from those (corn patches),” he said. “So I know the population is up and doing well.”
State Rep. Dean Fisher, a Tama County Republican representing House District 72, knows the devastation of losing sweet corn to raccoons. After years of losing sweet corn just before harvest, he started hearing from constituents suffering high-dollar damage.
One farmer, he said, suffered $10,000 in damage to a combine when he started it after a raccoon climbed inside. Another found dozens of raccoons in a cattle feeder.
He hopes stalled legislation, which he intends to file again in the next session, will help farmers who believe the Iowa DNR’s current allowances for killing nuisance animals aren’t enough.
“You can’t be out there 24 hours to see when one of these critters would get into your field,” he said. “You have to eradicate them in your area beforehand, get preventive steps to thin the population before damage even starts.”
Current state rules allow for raccoon kills outside of their short hunting season only when they qualify as a nuisance. A common refrain Fisher hears from farmers is “shoot it, shovel it and shut up.”
Preston Moore, Iowa state director of the Humane Society of the United States, takes issue with the bill’s scope, which goes beyond hunting.
“Implementing a year-round ‘anything goes’ open season on raccoons won’t have the impact he’s hoping. It’s not just an open season — he’s proposing a complete deregulation of raccoons to the DNR,” Moore said.
By removing state oversight of raccoons, Moore said the agency with the best understanding of the landscape for natural resources would no longer be able to collect important data on the species, such as outbreaks of canine distemper.
“Right now, if you have an issue with raccoons, you can control the animal with immediate threats to property. You can walk through solutions with the DNR. There’s a good nuanced approach that already works,” Moore said. “This (bill) would take all that off the table.”
Conflicts between raccoons and humans aren’t anything new, he said, and legislators should be focused more on where and when conflicts are happening to address them properly, rather than enact blunt changes that could have unintended consequences.
With very few natural predators in Iowa, the scavengers eat a lot of unsightly things and serve as a great cleaner in the ecosystem, Moore said. The state instead should look at providing protections for natural predators that would thin the raccoon population, like bears and mountain lions, he said.
“Right now, there’s no legal protections for them. They get hit by a car or killed usually shortly after being spotted,” he said.
What’s causing it?
A few different factors have made the perfect storm for the raccoon population to continue growing unchecked.
The increase in raccoons coincides with a decrease in furbearer trapping license sales in Iowa and low pelt values in international fur markets, according to the Iowa DNR. Markets in Russia and China, some of the largest purchasers of furs, have been complicated by difficult foreign relations spurred by American support for Ukraine and Taiwan.
As fur becomes less fashionable with many Western consumers, pelts that went for as much as $40 in the 1970s now sell for under $5, according to one Iowa DNR wildlife biologist. Data reported by the Des Moines Register shows that even in the last decade, the number of raccoons trapped has dramatically declined from about 308,000 in 2011 to about 34,500 in 2021.
“The state of Iowa for a long time wiped out our native carnivores,” Moore said. “We have few native predators (of raccoons.)”
Taylor said that derecho disruptions to the environment combined with derecho repairs to homes created new vulnerabilities for raccoons to exploit. As hollowed-out trees they used for shelter were knocked down, raccoons looked to houses without siding.
“People had a really hard time finding siding. Some of those things from the ground may not look bad, but raccoons can get up onto most any roof and they’ll rip up those vulnerabilities,” Taylor said.
With intelligence unparalleled by many other nuisance creatures, they adapt with experience as they figure out how to escape insufficient live traps set out by inexperienced homeowners.
“One thing that can happen in urban areas is you can have situations where you have highly educated raccoons,” Stutzman said. “Once a raccoon has been in a house, there’s really not a house they can’t get into.”
Myths and tips
One myth is that raccoons out during the day are diseased. During certain times of year, that’s not true. As winter approaches, many are trying to bulk up on fat reserves with extra feedings.
If you see one, keep your distance.
Because they’re scavengers, one of the best preventive measures is to avoid leaving any food around your property — food dishes for pets, bird feeders and the like.
“They’ll adjust their own habits and behaviors and start feeding from those things,” Taylor said. “They won’t want to travel as far, so they will try to break into the shed, attic — a place to live that is much closer than if they hadn’t left food sources out.”
Avoid watering your lawn in the fall, which brings earthworms to the surface. As temperatures drop, underground bugs and worms are a good source of protein for raccoons who have no qualms with digging up a yard.
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