Why Are Deer on the Decline in Western Iowa?

July 8, 2024 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Iowa DNR is holding a series of public meetings in Western Iowa this summer to discuss a decline in deer populations and how to restore numbers. In most of the whitetail’s range, state wildlife agencies are facing growing deer numbers that can’t be contained because hunter harvest, especially of does, can’t keep up. So, what’s going on in Western Iowa?

“Overharvest is the leading factor without a doubt,” said Jace Elliott, Iowa’s State Deer Biologist. “But there were compounding factors, like EHD and landscape changes.”

To be specific, Jace told me the area of concern includes 18 of Iowa’s 99 counties, all in the Missouri River drainage on Iowa’s borders with South Dakota and Nebraska. In the rest of the state, deer populations are either nearly stable or increasing.

“In 2003, Iowa began an aggressive deer population reduction strategy statewide, and that continued into the early 2010s,” Jace told me. “It wasn’t unfounded. We were dealing with an unprecedented explosion in deer numbers.”

In Iowa, antlerless harvest opportunity is distributed at the county level, with specific antlerless quotas set for each county. The number of tags available in each county climbed through 2010 and peaked at 2,500 tags in many counties. But where the tags sold out each year up until then, the number sold in Western Iowa started to fall. By 2013, less than half of the quota sold in Western Iowa. In 2014, Iowa DNR cut the quotas significantly. 

Antlerless tags available (dark blue) versus sold (light blue) for three west central Iowa counties. Tags peaked at 2,500 per county from 2010 to 2013, but the number sold was already declining.

Right when doe harvest was climbing significantly, as Iowa DNR intended, several serious outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) hit Iowa’s deer. EHD was moving northward and westward out of its traditional range in the Southeast. Having little previous exposure or natural immunity to the virus, Midwestern deer died in high numbers.

“Once we reached what could have been equilibrium, we were hit with severe EHD outbreaks in 2012 and again in 2013,” said Jace. “It seemed to hit western Iowa harder than other areas. Then, 2019 was another bad year, and 2021 and 2023 were pretty bad years statewide also. In hindsight we started trying to recover the population later than we should have.”

The rest of Iowa’s deer withstood these waves of virus. Compounding the issue in Western Iowa is a landscape factor Jace described. 

“There’s really nothing different than the rest of the state in terms of habitat trends, but in western Iowa deer habitat is very fragmented,” he said. “Deer exist in river bottoms and fractured, marginal stands of timber. These are not large expanses of habitat that allow deer to evade harvest like what we see in the eastern parts of the state. This sets the deer up to be more vulnerable to harvest, especially when they’re being actively pushed out of cover. Over half of our harvest is from the gun seasons, and half of gun hunters participate in deer drives. So, it’s safe to say a quarter of the deer harvest is coming from deer drives.”

Iowa deer hunters agree about the decline in Western Iowa. In results from the 2023 Iowa Deer Hunter Survey, 37% of deer hunters in the Nishnabotna River area of southwest Iowa said there were “much fewer” deer compared to the 5-year trend. This was the highest rate of support for “much fewer” in the state. Another 31% said “slightly fewer.” Combined, 68% perceived a decline. The statewide rate was 44%.

“In Western Iowa there’s been a 20% to 30% decline in deer harvest compared to just the 5-year average, which hunters would argue was already too low,” said Jace.

Statewide, deer harvest is still at a normal level and deer hunter satisfaction still runs high. Overall, 74% of hunters said they were satisfied with the quality of deer hunting in Iowa (10% were unsatisfied). 66% were satisfied with the number of deer they saw (17% unsatisfied), and 65% with the number they harvested (20% unsatisfied).

“It’s easy to point a finger at the aggressive harvest strategies of the mid 2000s as a primary factor in the Western Iowa deer decline, but it’s necessary to consider that the whole state had a serious overpopulation issue at that time,” said Jace. “A statewide problem was handled with a statewide solution, but clearly that caused some regional issues. All of this supports the case for a balanced deer herd. When deer numbers are balanced, it allows for slow, fine-tuned management decisions that prevent this sort of situation from occurring.” 

Iowa DNR’s proposed changes for the 2024 hunting season include dropping antlerless quotas lower or to zero in Western Iowa counties that were not already at zero.

What’s Iowa DNR Doing?

On July 8, Iowa DNR launched the Western Iowa Deer Initiative, a series of eight public meetings in Western Iowa counties, with the last on July 18. There, Iowa DNR will provide data on deer harvest trends, outline their response, take questions, and gather additional public comment through an attendee survey.

Jace said the proposed plan, currently under public comment and review by the wildlife commission, includes dropping antlerless tags to zero in most Western Iowa counties. “In the past, our two major tools to recover deer populations were eliminating antlerless quotas and restricting harvest to buck-only in the first gun season, but there may be new strategies going forward,” he said.

If you hunt in Western Iowa, NDA encourages you to attend DNR’s public hearings and review the proposed changes. If you can’t attend a meeting, send your comments to Jace Elliott, Iowa State Deer Biologist.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.