Staff Columnist

Iowa City locks antlers with state regulators

City Council is 'outraged' at Natural Resource Commission

(PUBLISHED: A deer crosses Prairie du Chien Road in rural Iowa City last year. The Iowa House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony Monday that the number of deer-vehicle crashes in Iowa has increased from 4,805 to 13,100 per year over the past 20 years.) A deer crosses Prairie Du Chien Roadon Monday, July 1, 2002, in rural Iowa City.
(PUBLISHED: A deer crosses Prairie du Chien Road in rural Iowa City last year. The Iowa House Natural Resources Committee heard testimony Monday that the number of deer-vehicle crashes in Iowa has increased from 4,805 to 13,100 per year over the past 20 years.) A deer crosses Prairie Du Chien Roadon Monday, July 1, 2002, in rural Iowa City.

Iowa City has a deer problem. Or maybe it’s a local control problem.

A deer population study conducted in 2017 estimated there may be as many as 80 deer per square mile in affected areas of town. Overpopulation has led to both a minor problem — animals picking at residents’ gardens — and also a very serious one — more deer-versus-automobile incidents.

City leaders want to hire professional sharpshooters to maintain the deer population with a single, short-term hunt, but they say state regulators are interfering with their plans. Twice last year, the Natural Resource Commission denied Iowa City’s proposal to establish a special deer management zone.

The city is stuck between rival constituencies.

On one side, there are drivers and homeowners advocating for a professional hunt to protect their property and their personal safety. On another side, there are animal welfare activists fiercely opposed to any lethal strategy. And on yet another side, there are regulators and hunting enthusiasts who want to ensure amateur hunters get a share.

City Council member Rockne Cole said at a meeting this month he is “outraged” at the commission’s inaction.

“We all viewed it as a tremendously tragic thing that we had to do, but we were concerned about human life, and so this commission is inhibiting our ability to protect our residents from danger,” Cole said.

Understandably, hunting animals in urban areas is heavily restricted. Local governments are required to submit detailed management plans to the Natural Resource Commission, and can only initiate hunts with prior approval. Eighteen communities across the state have deer management zones in place.

In a letter to the city manager in January, commission chairwoman Margo Underwood said the city should develop a long-term management strategy, past the first-year sharpshoot program.

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City staff members have understood that to mean the commission favors opening the hunt to amateur bowhunters in future years. However, citizens at a public input session last year were generally opposed to amateur bowhunting within city limits.

Clearly, the state government has an interest in regulating hunting. Wildlife is a statewide resource, and there is legitimate concern that allowing cities to authorize hunts uninhibited might endanger the health and safety of humans and animals alike.

However, the current approval process leaves local governments confused about what’s expected of them. The city has already engaged with a paid consultant, while council members and administrators have spent many hours developing a management plan they have no assurance will ever be approved.

Iowa Code offers limited guidance about deer management zones, empowering political appointees on the commission to oversee the program. So unelected Iowans, few of whom live in cities, have broad discretion over how Iowa City manages its outsized deer population.

“It seems like a very pro-hunter approach, not really concerned what our issues are in an urban area,” City Council member Susan Mims said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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