Bowhunters have removed more than 5,300 deer from Des Moines and the surrounding suburbs since 1997, when the cities joined in a deer reduction effort targeting does. Removing 5,300 deer may seem like a large number, the impact is exponentially greater as those deer are no longer producing fawns.
Original aerial surveys in 1998 recorded deer numbers as high as 200 per square mile and most of the survey areas had deer numbers above the goal of 30 deer per square mile.
The urban deer management program has lowered the deer population in most of the 20 survey areas. Today, more than half of the survey areas are below goal and only a few remain with very high density levels. Now the means are in place to control deer numbers if and when citizens request their city take action.
“The program has been very successful where it has been implemented,” said Roger Jacobson, with the City of Johnston.
Bowhunting in city limits and the size of the deer herd were hot issues during Des Moines city council meetings in 1996-97. City leaders formed an urban deer task force to study the issue and recommend solutions to council members.
Task force members came from cities departments, the humane society, the Iowa DNR, Polk County Conservation Board (CCB), and special interests, like flower growers and gardeners. It was lead by former Polk CCB chair Ben Van Gundy.
The group documented deer damage in city and county parks, and determined that an urban bow hunt, similar to what was going on successfully in Waterloo, was the safest and most cost effective way to reduce the herd.
Waterloo selected bowhunting as the method of take because deer are taken at close range. Waterloo also required participating hunters to use an elevated stand and complete a bow hunter safety course and pass proficiency tests each year.
The elevated stand reduces the likelihood of an errant shot and the tests demonstrate hunter capability with their bow.
The Polk County task force provided guidelines that cities could use to begin an urban hunt. The cities run their own hunts but over the years, the processes and requirements have evolved to a nearly identical set of standards making it easier for hunters to participate.
Areas are posted alerting passersby that bowhunting is going on in the area. Property owners living in the vicinity of an area to be hunted must approve of the hunts for it to take place.
Johnston has allowed urban deer hunts for 16 years. Jim Sanders, Johnston city administrator, said he relies on the task force and avid hunters for recommendations on who participates in the hunt.
Sanders said the hunts have been successful and safe. As the herd numbers have come down, hunters shifted from hunting large parcels in the city to smaller residential sized lots.
Erv Wagner, with the Iowa Bowhunters Association and chair of the Deer Task Force, said he took five deer this year, all within 15 yards of his stand.
Citizen attitudes have now come full circle said Mike Gaul, administrator from Des Moines.
“Initially, we received calls from concerned and cautious homeowners, but it’s switched to complements,” Gaul said.
The purpose of the urban hunts is not to eliminate the deer herd, but to get the herd to manageable levels of 30 deer per square mile. In Waterworks Park, deer numbers fell to nine per square mile, so the urban hunt was suspended for 2013. The population has since risen to 12 deer per square mile.
In Urbandale, there are certain parks in the east side of town where deer can flee that provide a sanctuary and hunts will be restarted in those areas. West Des Moines also has small areas with high deer numbers that will be addressed if the locals ask for assistance.
Many of the deer taken are donated to the HUSH program and distributed through local food banks.
In 2014, the deer task force will meet to discuss goals, review surveys and decide on the harvest for the upcoming season. The urban hunt is open from mid September through mid January. Anyone interested in knowing about the hunt can contact their city deer hunt administrator.
“This has been a great example of city leaders responding to citizens concerns and finding an efficient answer,” said Bill Bunger, wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
In addition, the hunters involved in this program have shown a great sense of ethics and responsibility in helping accomplish the cities' goals, he said.
“They have been involved at their own expense and shown respect for this great resource while providing a valuable service to residents of Polk County,” Bunger said.
For more information, contact Bill Bunger, Wildlife Biologist, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 515-975-8318.