Washington Evening Journal
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Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Jun 28, 2017

Tracks and Tales: Oh Deer

By Pam Holz

I wave my hands in front of the board with animal photos, “And the next animal to disappear from Iowa was….”
“Deer!” shouts out a student.  Acknowledging her answer, I remove the deer picture and add a tombstone:  RIP Iowa Deer 1900.  
“Wait,” complains another student.  “We still have deer.”
“Don’t jump ahead,” I mockingly scold.  “We’re in 1900.  We’ll talk about ‘now’ in time.” (Disappointedly, few students react to my pun).  
Starting at statehood, we were discussing the changes of Iowa wildlife over time.  By the time we reached 1900, we had already lost black bear, mountain lion, bison, elk, wolf, and passenger pigeon.  After all this loss, the decline of the white-tailed deer was not going unnoticed.  In 1898, in an early attempt at wildlife conservation, the state passed a no-hunting law for deer.  Unfortunately, the law not only was too late, but saw no support on the ground.  Hunting pressure continued till deer vanished within our borders.  
At the time, people held little hope for any significant return.  From first documentation to disappearance, the white-tailed deer lived primarily within the state’s eastern forests.  On the tallgrass prairie, which covered most of the state, roamed the bison (or buffalo).  Partly in the prairie, significantly in the savannahs (prairies with a scattering of trees), and partly in the timber, lived the elk.  With the deforestation of Iowa’s timber, experts of the time considered the remaining timber too small and fragmented for deer.  Obviously, they guessed incorrectly.  
At the beginning of the Great Depression, wild deer began returning to Iowa.  Some came from neighboring states with higher populations.  Others escaped from game farms within the state, when Dust Bowl winds knocked down the confining fences.  One such herd originated with the Singmaster family in Keota, known also for their excellent horses.
The herds managed quite well within Iowa’s now agricultural landscape.  Either they adapted to the changes favorably or the changes themselves were favorable to the deer.  An argument in favor of the latter might include the lack of significant predators (no wolves), the disappearance of competing species (most likely elk and perhaps bison), and/or a new food source (corn and soybeans).  
Whatever the reason, by the 1950s, the state’s deer population was deemed significantly high enough to open a hunting season.  The population has soared since then, with the state seeing more deer now than prior to 1900.  
Naturally, a high population of deer comes with a set of its own problems.  Crop depredation, car accidents, tree nursery issues, and even negative garden visitations are just a few.  
The question is, what are deer to Iowa?  Are they a treasure to be honored or a trouble to be managed?  Some might say that our great Iowa habitat for them should lend itself toward the raising of trophy deer.  Those exact questions will be answered by Larry Stone, author, photographer, and DNR collaborator on the deer history project.  Stone will be speaking to the public on March 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Halcyon House.  There is no charge to attend.  
I certainly hope to be there, to learn more about deer in Iowa, to see some wonderful photographs, and also to touch base with my friend and fellow conservationist Larry.  I hope to see you there as well.