116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Oh, deer, it’s about that time. The urban deer bowhunt season began Saturday.
Dozens of Iowa cities have the annual hunts to control deer population within city limits. Hunters also can hunt on private land within the city limits if they have permission.
Iowa cities that have urban deer management programs include Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Ames, Davenport, Dubuque and Des Moines as well as 17 others, including Iowa City, where the new program is off to a slow start.
Typically, the urban bowhunt season runs from Sept. 17 to mid-January.
Ross Ellingson, who works in wildlife depredation with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the purpose of such programs is to manage deer populations to prevent disease, decrease vehicle accidents involving deer and protect city residents’ plants.
To acquire tags for an urban hunt, hunters have to pass a proficiency test each year to make sure they can hit their targets. Typically, a city has only a certain number of tags available to hunters. Once they’re sold out, no more are available.
All of the programs aim to cut down doe populations as a way to prevent rapid growth in the deer population. Some programs offer “buck incentives,” meaning if a hunter harvests a certain number of does in a season, they’ll be able to get a buck tag for the next season.
Ellingson defines a successful urban hunt as one that reaches its harvest goals.
“Reaching harvest goals within city limits in order to keep complaints by residents at a minimum, whether it be landscaping destroyed by deer, auto collisions, those sorts of things,” Ellingson said. “But another part of being successful is having minimal issues with the hunt. Very seldom do we have issues with hunters doing the wrong thing.”
Statewide, Ellingson said, the deer population is “pretty stable.“
“Our overall harvest goals from year to year are being met at just over 100,000, and half of that is female deer, which we want to see,” he said.
Iowa City concerns
Iowa City still is in the infancy of its own program, which dealt with early pushback from concerned citizens. Now it’s gearing up for its third bowhunting season. As in past seasons, the city has a very low participation rate.
As of now, only three bowhunters have signed up, Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg said. The number of deer harvested last year? Four.
“The number of deer harvested from the urban bowhunt in the last few years does not represent a sustainable pace for maintaining our deer population to manageable levels,” Kilburg said.
“To improve the effectiveness of this program, in recent years we have increased the quota and deer tags available, lengthened the hunting season to align with the statewide season dates, and lengthened the application window.
“This year, we are also encouraging not only interested hunters to participate but also property owners and helping connect approved hunters with interested eligible property owners,” Kilburg said.
The bowhunting season was added in Iowa City, through 2024, at the request of the state’s Natural Resource Commission.
In 2010, Iowa City hired private sharpshooters with White Buffalo to thin the deer population within the city limits. A study showed the hunt decreased the deer population, but eight years later, the population was back up over 10,000 in surveyed areas of the city. Iowa City again hired White Buffalo sharpshooters to thin the herd.
Residents who oppose the sharpshooting and bowhunting programs want to see non-lethal methods used, like contraception and relocation.
But 2021 saw dozens of car accidents involving deer in Iowa City, totaling thousands of dollars in damage — more than double the 2020 totals. Before that, the number of accidents ranged from 51 to 58 betwen 2016 and 2019.
According to a city memo from Kilburg, the last aerial deer count was “concerning.“
“The overall deer count increased from 239 in 2021 to 615 in 2022,” the memo reads. “Although this is a moment in time count, complaints and anecdotes from the community back up this estimate. The 2022 population and density estimates are comparable to 2010 and 2018 when White Buffalo was recruited to conduct professional sharpshooting.”
Kilburg estimated the city needs to cull around 25 deer per year to maintain deer population levels. Only seven have been culled over in the past two seasons.
“If the 2022-23 bow hunt program returns similar results, the city anticipates the deer density level will increase considerably in the coming year and the social tolerance will decline as well,” Kilburg said in the memo. “Successful deer management depends heavily on an ability to maintain levels annually, over the long term.”
Black Hawk County’s successful program
Resident pushback isn’t uncommon when cities begin discussing deer management programs. When the Waterloo/Cedar Falls program in Black Hawk County began in the 1990s, many residents were concerned they’d see dying deer with arrows protruding from their bodies and pools of blood on trails and in neighborhoods.
A few decades later, that hasn’t happened, said Lori Eberhard, administrator of the deer management program in Black Hawk County and manager of the George Wyth State Park.
“I have to find the balance between the hunters and the public,” Eberhard said. “There are still people who don’t like this. We want people to be able to see deer here, but we don’t want to have sick deer or damage to our forests. You have to be able to maintain the herds in a safe manne,r and archery is a safe way to harvest deer in a public setting.”
The Black Hawk County program is seen as one of the most successful examples of a deer management program in Iowa. Since 1994, hunters in Black Hawk County — which number 110 to 120 per year — have harvested 3,000 deer.
“We have to keep tabs on all our hunters, and many say it’s really convenient for them to be able to hunt this way,” Eberhard said. “This way, they may be only 20 minutes from their tree stand and can hunt for a couple hours in the morning and then go about their day instead of planning a whole weekend trip. Plus, most of these hunters are harvesting food to feed their families, too.”
Jeff Galpin has participated in the program for 15 years. He’s now on the program’s board and is a bow education instructor. Each season he harvests five to 10 deer and uses the hunt to fill his freezer.
“You’re going to get around 80 to 110 pounds of meat off a deer,” he said. “We do tons of different things with it. I have a meat room in my house with the stainless steel table, smoker, all of it. But I also have lockers do some things. We make steaks, ground meat, soup meats, deer bacon, sausage and deer sticks.”
Galpin said Black Hawk County’s program is successful because of its strict rules and regulations.
“Things started out here a little rocky, like Iowa City is right now, but everyone here knows exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Galpin said. “People think it’s an easy hunt, and it’s not. Deer are smart animals.
“But the hunters here talk a lot, and it gets more people involved. Everything is run really well. We do our field days, DNR agents meet every person face to face each year, and they know who we all are.”
Cedar Rapids bowhunt popular, working
Cedar Rapids has run its own successful bowhunting program for years. It started in 2007 and immediately had more people interested than Iowa City has seen.
“Right from the beginning, we had between 100 and 200 hunters participating with a harvest of 400 deer,” said Jason Andrews, a Cedar Rapids Fire Department battalion chief and manager of the Cedar Rapids program.
So far this year, Andrews has issued 61 bowhunt permits, which he says is perfect for where the program is right now.
“We’ve really reduced the population to where we have always wanted it,” he said. “Harvest is about half of what it was in the beginning, which is absolutely what we want now. We are no longer in a deer reduction phase. We are in a deer population management phase.”
In Cedar Rapids, the urban hunts are on private land only. At the start of the program, there was a lot of pushback on the idea of hunters using public land for the program.
“By and large now, the community has been really supportive,” Andrews said. “The hunt targeting is mostly in wooded areas, along the river corridor and pretty heavily on the northeast and southeast sides. Those residents are pretty established and know the benefits of the program.”
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