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The Recipe for Collapse
Posted By Bill Winke at 1/10/2014 12:00:00 AM

While not common, hunters in the area were dropping bucks like this regularly in the
mid-2000s  Pictured here is Steve Hanson with a giant early muzzleloader buck
If I told you what it looked like around here back in 2003 and 2004 you would not believe me.  I sure would like to show you on video, but unfortunately, it is no more.  Maybe that quality of hunting can return - I suppose it is possible.  But either way, I thought you might find it interesting to learn what it was like at its best and what it is like now and how we got here. It is a study in human nature, deer biology, politics and even weather. 


I started hunting in this area in 1995.  I grew up in NE Iowa where I hunted the bluff country of the Mississippi River and the drainages of many cold water trout streams and small rivers.  It is beautiful country but back then there was very little deer management taking place and I rarely saw mature bucks

The world record hunter-killed buck shot
about 7 miles away in 2003 by Tony
Lovstuen.  There were big deer all over
the place
I learned of a big 3,600 acre property (a corporate farm) that was selling some shares of ownership.  My wife and I mortgaged everything we had to buy half a share of that stock.  My sister put up her Ford Explorer as collateral to help us with the loan.  It was "only" $40,000, which in today's world of land prices is nothing, but to us it was a fortune. 

There we lots of deer and quite a few mature bucks.  I had a ball hunting that property for 9 seasons.  It got me into the neighborhood, but eventually I grew weary of owning land with 13 other men.  There was always some kind of drama.  I was able to start buying land privately nearby and in 2004 I sold my ownership, which by then had grown into a full share worth quite a bit of money.  Land prices were on the rise.  I used the money to buy even more land nearby.  That was my start.

By all measures, the hunting on the land I bought was phenomenal.  There were lots of deer and within a short time I was shooting many does each fall .  (I had saved up enough to own 600 acres by that time).  My goal was to try to bring the herd down slightly so I could more easily grow food plots and my farmer neighbors could grow a better crop.  This was right at the start of the Iowa DNR's efforts to bring the herd down by issuing a high number of antlerless tags for hunters to use.  It was the best of times

Hunting pressure in the neighborhood had been low in that area and many bucks had grown to full maturity.  There were giant bucks everywhere.  In 2004, for example, there were two bucks over 200 inches and one big clean typical over 190 net on the farm.  That was before I began running trail cameras. There is no telling what was really here hiding in the bushes!  I am sure it would be scary what I could have killed if I had known then what I know now.  I don't even want to think about it.

Our daughter with the giant four year old that was on our farm in 2004.  I actually had a
shot at him on Nov. 6, 2004 - but that is another story.  The neighbors found him dead
in December that year.  He grossed around 225.  There was one on the farm that year
that was even bigger!  My neighbor has the sheds from him
I didn't kill any of those giants, but plenty of nice 160 to 170 inch bucks that did find their way into the back of my truck

With all the doe shooting, (my neighbors were doing it too) we actually reversed the buck to doe ratio until there were way more bucks than does!  During the rut, there were mature bucks running everywhere - no lull.   Nearly all the bucks were beat up after the rut from fighting. I remember one season (2005, I think) when I averaged seeing more than 1.5 different mature bucks per day (on their feet in daylight) throughout the entire season!  Wow!

Of course, the population eventually did have to come down.  That was the goal by all involved.  But we never saw it dropping as fast as it did.  It actually imploded throughout the neighborhood as hunters took full advantage of the doe permits and really socked it to them.  By 2008, I was probably down about 25% from the deer density I had here in 2002 - when I started buying land. By 2010, it was down another half. I was still seeing decent numbers of deer and some very good bucks, but there were obviously less deer and less sign.  Things actually looked pretty well balanced at that time (both in terms of overall number of deer and buck to doe ratio).

A party of happy shed hunters on our farm in the mid-2000s.  Now that pile would
be about one-fifth that size
If we could have stayed at the 2010 numbers and ratios, I think most everyone would have been happy, but that is when the politics stepped in. 

From what I have been told, the DNR started recommending that the antlerless quotas be reduced at about that time - to put a floor under the deer herd.  But the recommendation was ignored in favor of politics. It was our chance to keep things on a solid footing, but the opportunity slipped by and that brings us to where we are now. 


Right now I would say we are at about 20 % of the number of deer we had in 2004.  Think about it.  That means five times less bucks!.  That means that you have fewer bucks to reach maturity and fewer bucks to potentially display the ideal genetic potential to get big. 

There is definitely a balance in the number of deer you can support in a very healthy way, and there is a limit in the number of deer your neighbors will endure if they are primarily farmers.  So I am not an advocate for high deer numbers, but I would like to see roughly twice as many deer here so the genetic dice can come up snake-eyes a few more times each year

We don't have any truly big deer on the farm now, that I am aware of, even though the farm is now 400 acre bigger.  More land, less big deer.  Not a good formula


As deer hunters we did our job of reducing deer numbers very well.
There is no question that over-harvesting the does has caused the herd to hit low levels and then you throw EHD on top of that and potentially some predation from coyotes on fawns and you have an implosion.  There are still deer here, but it is not like it was - not even close. 

It is not all about the numbers. The habits of the local hunters also changed.  In the 90s, local hunters didn't target bucks.  A doe was just fine.  There was very little "trophy" hunting.  However, as deer hunting became popular, more people wanted to shoot a big buck. 

The easiest of all "big" bucks to kill are the genetically superior 3 year olds. They cover a lot of ground and are not particularly hard to kill.  Plus they can look really big.  We had one here in 2003 that scored 185 inches (measured from one of his sheds). That was one of the bucks that scored over 200 inches here in 2004.  He was a gross 225 as a 4 year old

As hunters increasingly targeted "trophy" deer, they were putting a lot of pressure on those high genetic quality 3 year olds to the point that few survived.  That is another reason why the number of truly giant bucks in the population has dropped. 


I believe it will be at least four years before we start to see any significant
numbers of big antlered bucks in the population again


The ideal herd is one with decent deer numbers - well within the overall carrying capacity of both the available food sources and within the tolerance band of local farmers, but with enough deer that occassionally a genetic freak shows up with the potential to grow really big.  Then we need the hunters with the restraint to let them reach full maturity.

Of the two, it is going to be much easier to get the deer numbers up than to expect hunters to pass up great looking young bucks on any kind of wide scale. 

I think we will see the number of giant bucks in Iowa come back, maybe not to 2003/2004 levels, but much better than today.  We are going to have less hunters because the opportunists in the sport will drop out as deer numbers decline.  It is already in the works.  When the bucks are everywhere, everyone is buck hunter.  When they are scarce, people find other things to do. 

The hunter numbers are way down in Iowa from their highs in 2006/2007.  People are giving up because the hunting has been declining in most areas.  I am guessing that we will see even less hunters next year.  While it is not good for the strength of our industry, it will signal the rebound in both the deer numbers and the size (maturity) of the bucks

Unless something unforeseen happens, I am expecting to see some very impressive hunting in many parts of Iowa again in about four years.  Next year may not be great (should be better than this year) but it should keep improving slightly every year after that for a while - until the numbers bring in a fresh batch of opportunistic hunters and a fresh batch of legislation to reduce the population again

It is a cycle, we are just on the bottom of it now.