‘Rats with hooves’: Iowa City Council’s deer management program is under fire as population grows

The Thornberry Off-Leash Dog Park and surrounding trails in Iowa City closed March 2020 for scheduled seasonal deer culls. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

For the past two hunting seasons, using bow-hunters to reduce the number of deer in Iowa City has proven ineffective. But the city could only get the five-year deer management program it adopted in 2019 approved by state officials on the condition it included four years of bow-hunting. So the city is preparing for a third season of bow-hunting as it tries to control the deer population.

On Friday, Iowa City began accepting applications online from anyone with a bow-hunting license from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for the next hunting season, which will run from Sept. 17 to Jan. 10.

At last week’s Iowa City Council work session, council members discussed deer management and gathered public a recent listening post about the five-year management plan.

“I actually came home from a council meeting late at night, a car light shined on the driveway. I thought it was a large dog, but it was a deer in my yard, and I’d never seen a deer in my yard before,” Councilmember Pauline Taylor said at Tuesday’s work session.

Before the current plan, the city relied on sharpshooting to manage the deer population. From 2000 through 2009, White Buffalo Inc., a nonprofit wildlife management company based in Connecticut, conducted annual sharpshooting culls in Iowa City as part of its deer management program. The city ended the program in 2010 because of low deer density. But after eight years, the deer rebounded to an estimated 80 deer per square mile.

In 2019, the city began working on a new deer management program, but by that time the Iowa Natural Resource Commission (NRC) had decided to impose new requirements involving bow-hunting on all deer management programs. Deer are considered state property in Iowa, so all deer management programs must be approved by the NRC, a board consisting of seven citizens appointed to six-year terms by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.

The city proposed returning to its previous system of annual culls by sharpshooter, but the NRC has a policy of only approving five-year plans that feature at least four years of culls by bow-hunters, after a single year of sharpshooting. Despite requests from the city council, the NRC would not change its requirements, so the city had to agree to them in order to have a deer management program.

A white-tailed deer. — Jill Rogan/Flickr

The city hired White Buffalo to conduct the cull during the 2018-2020 season, and its sharpshooters killed 500 deer. The following year, deer density fell to 14.04 per square mile. The nonprofit estimated that the urban bow-hunting program would need to cull a minimum of 55 deer annually to maintain the current population.

But bow-hunters only bagged three deer in Iowa City during the 2020-2021 season and four deer in 2021-2022.

“Do we have any reason to think that the session we had and the DNR folks who attended would change the minds of those on the Natural Resource Commission to reconsider our repeated request to sharpshoot again?” Councilmember Laura Bergus asked Tuesday.

Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has offered advice about improving the bow-hunting program, such as getting hunters access to more private property where hunting would be permitted, and connecting staff to their counterparts in cities like Des Moines, which has had successful bow-hunting programs. City Manager Geoff Fruin said that as staff works on the next five-year management plan that begins in 2023, the city will need to demonstrate to the NRC it takes bow-hunting “seriously” and has attempted to attract hunters.

“Other communities in Iowa allow hunting on public ground. We do not, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is an issue for the NRC when the time comes,” Fruin said. “Some targeted sharpshooting in certain areas, at certain times, may be plausible as long as we continue to put forth the effort to grow our bow-hunt program.”

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

“I agree with that,” said Councilmember John Thomas. “If we show a good faith effort to try to make the bow-hunting work and document what those efforts are, that we could make the case for reintroducing sharpshooting at some point in the near future.”

This year, there were 37.11 deer per square mile, according to an aerial survey conducted by DNR. Iowa City’s guidelines call for 25 deer per mile, while state guidelines set the bar at 10 deer per mile. The aerial surveys are a “moment in time” snapshot conducted every winter, and the numbers can vary year to year, depending on the day and the weather, so the actual number of deer in the area may not be as high as survey indicated, explained DNR Wildlife Biologist Andy Kellner.

“Cally watching a deer,” Iowa City, 2019 — David Busch

Deer overpopulation can lead to habitat degradation and spread illnesses among the animals, such as chronic wasting disease. In addition to damaging gardens, deer can also interrupt prairie restoration efforts by eating native plants like New England Aster and other flowering, water-filled plants.

A large deer population can pose problems for motorists. There were 58 deer-vehicle collisions in 2018, a record number, although 2016, 2017 and 2019 had over 50 accidents, the Iowa City Police Department reported. Following the 2019-2020 sharpshooting cull, there were 14 collisions in 2020 and 36 collisions last year. Many of these accidents occur along Highway 218, Highway 80 and Rochester Avenue (along Hickory Hill Park).

Sharpshooting vs. bow-hunting

It’s not just the city council that is dissatisfied with the results of the deer management program. During a July 25 listening post on the topic, the few members of the public who attended also wanted a change.

Carol Fethke, a Manville Heights resident, said she’s seen whole families of deer sleeping in her neighborhood. Fethke collected signatures from 40 of her neighbors demanding an “immediate solution from the Council whose policies have created this mess.”

Her petition describes packs racing across driveways and streets causing driving hazards, evergreens and bushes eaten down to raw branches, and deer that aren’t frightened when adults or children approach. Her neighbors call them 1,200-pound “rats with hooves.”

“The City’s rules for bow-hunters in the intervening years are so restrictive that there is no place for a bow-hunter to legally stand to hunt in our neighborhood,” the petition reads. “Those officials we have talked to maintain that we have to wait for the next cull; in the meantime, the herd grows and is more destructive.”

Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg told Little Village in an email that the city’s biggest challenge is “limited hunter participation combined with limited available properties to hunt.”

During the first bow-hunting season, there were five approved hunters. To increase participation, the city lengthened the application period by around two months, opened the hunting season two weeks earlier and increased the quota from 75 to 200 deer.

In the following season, there were again five approved hunters.

For the DNR’s Kellner, comparing sharpshooting to bow-hunting is an “apples to oranges” scenario. The White Buffalo sharpshooters hunted at night in eight city parks using bait piles. Deer management is their full-time job, not a recreational activity as it is for bow-hunters.

There are also many safety measures that regulate bow-hunting. The regulations include hunters only shooting from a deer stand with an elevation of at least six feet (so any errant arrows will be more likely to strike the ground) and not shooting at deer more than 75 feet from the stand. They cannot hunt on public land and on private property must be 150 feet the property’s boundary line.

“It’s been really tough politically in Iowa City for the City and bow-hunters to get on the same page. And it’s just a new thing in the area. There’s some discomfort with it,” Kellner said.

By contrast, Polk County’s urban bowhunting program, which began in 1996, harvested 281 antlerless deer in the 2020-2021 season. The county had 169 total hunters that season, and 144 were bow-hunters. In the 2019-2020 season, bow-hunters harvested 278 deer.

Kellner believes bow-hunting can be a long-term solution allowing the city to maintain a consistent deer population, without the dramatic changes in numbers that occur with sharpshooting.

“One of the things that I’m gonna continue to encourage, even though I understand that it’s not popular with all the citizens, is looking at public areas, like big parks, if there’s a way to safely have hunting in it,” he said.

A non-lethal deer management plan

Some residents, however, don’t want bow-hunting or sharpshooting. Allison Jaynes, an associate professor of physics at the University of Iowa, advocates for non-lethal deer management.

“There’s a pretty good sizable population in Iowa City who don’t think that there is an abundance of deer that need to be managed,” she said. “We enjoy having the amount of deer that we have in our yards and in our gardens.”

The city passed an ordinance in 2020 that prohibits feeding deer, which includes leaving out grain, fodder, salt licks, fruit, vegetables, nuts, hay or other edible materials like bird feed. To discourage deer trespassers, the city recommends installing fences, using deer repellents and motion-sensor sprinklers and lights.

Jaynes lives near Hickory Hill Park, and she strings invisible fishing line at different heights around bamboo stakes to protect her garden. Since deer can’t see the lines, they don’t know how high to jump over it, Jaynes said. Instead, they get skittish and avoid her plants. Some of her neighbors have used electric fencing that emits a low-voltage shock to scare deer off.

A deer wanders through Macbride State Park. Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Jaynes said she’d like to see Iowa City implement a deer sterilization program. The city has rejected that option, citing high costs and the uncertain outcomes of such programs. White Buffalo offers fertility control services, specifically surgical sterilization, a 20-minute operation that removes the doe’s ovaries. The surgery costs around $1,000 per deer. White Buffalo estimates that 80 percent of female deer must be sterilized for the program to have an effect on an area’s population.

In some communities, sterilization resulted in a decline in deer density of up to 30 percent. But other communities found no changes in deer numbers.

“I really appreciate everybody’s passion about this, and that there is this much conversation about this resource in Iowa City. We want to hear people’s opinions. At the same time, I want people to look at what has been successful,” Kellner said. “It seems cheap to go this way, but it is always important to consider the cost and the investment of time.”

Lethal methods compliment the predator-prey dynamic that whitetail deer evolved with, Kellner said. As predator populations rose, deer population fell, and vice versa.

“If there’s nothing to work with the way that animals adapted, then we’re going to see that population climb in an unhealthy manner,” Kellner said. “And that’s where you can start seeing degradation to a lot of the native vegetation, where you might start to get those concerns about disease or increases in deer-vehicle collisions.”

Deer love urban environments, especially during the winter. There’s plentiful, nutritious food, and packs of bobcats, wolves and coyotes aren’t hiding in the Hy-Vee.

“I think by including a sort of lethal component in with the management of the population, we can get that back into a healthy check. It’s not that we don’t want no deer, it’s not that we want all the deer. We want a healthy deer herd,” Kellner said.

But Jaynes doesn’t think a lethal management plans present a long-term solution for population control. When big culls happen, either from sharpshooting or bow-hunting, the deer population rebounds in the next few years, she said.

“If you kill some deer, they’ll have more babies the next year,” Jaynes said. “You have to just keep killing them consistently, or accelerating that, in order to have any kind of effect. And it just doesn’t work.”

The application period for participating in this season’s bow-hunt runs through Oct. 21. The city is also taking applications from property owners who want to allow the hunters on their land. Anyone interested, or who has questions about the program, should email the city’s hunt coordinator Lt. Zach Diersen of the Iowa City Police Department at