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Iowa City Officials Again Consider Sharpshooting Deer

As urban deer popultions continue to climb, Iowa City is once again considering hiring sharpshooters to cull the animals.

Iowa City is once again debating how to rein in a growing urban deer population. As the city has done in the past, local officials are considering hiring sharpshooters to cull the deer. But residents are divided on how to manage the deer, which some say are damaging gardens and spurring car crashes.

The city’s urban deer population is growing. They can be spotted in public parks, yards, even in the middle of city streets, at times in broad daylight. Resident Carl Klaus said he routinely sees 12 to 15 deer on his street on a daily basis.

"When I first moved into the house, I longed to see a deer," Klaus said. "We had to wait three winters before we saw one and we were elated at the vision of it and we hoped to see a few more. As you know, our wishes were fulfilled beyond our wildest nightmares."

The city's deer management committee met this week to gather information and feedback from area residents. The city council will make any final decisions on implementing a deer management strategy, if at all.

"When I first moved into the house, I longed to see a deer...Our wishes were fulfilled beyond our wildest nightmares." - Iowa City resident Carl Klaus

Some residents are complaining the deer are eating virtually all of their landscaping, from vegetables to lilies to roses.

"They had not only cleaned out all of the hostas and many of the other flowering plants, but they had even managed to eat the ivy off the wall!" said resident Joe Coulter.

Iowa City hired the firm White Buffalo to estimate deer popultions in city limits. A January 2018 analysis estimates there are approximately 57 deer per square mile in the city. That's well beyond the nine to 10 deer per square mile some Iowa researchers have recommended in order to promote forest health.

Beyond the aesthetics and potential public safety issues, resident Caroline Dieterle said the growing deer population can pose a threat to other wildlife.

"If there's no predation, which essentially is the case with the deer, populations get out of control," Dieterle said."

Dieterle is particularly concerned about the deers' impacts on native plants and the greater ecosystem.

"If there are too many deer, all of the native flora suffers too," Dieterle said. "It's the wildflowers...and then the trees, the saplings. You'll have a denuded landscape if you don't have something done."

In past years, Iowa City has rejected calls to approve bowhunting of deer, as other communities across the state do. Local officials instead have historically opted to hire professional sharpshooters with the firm White Buffalo. The last sharpshooting program in 2009 cost Iowa City taxpayers $95,000.

"I'm in favor of the bowhunting option, like a lot of the other cities in Iowa have done. I'm probably the oddball in the room I guess." - Mark Finley, hunter

But resident Carl Klaus said the sporadic programs aren’t a long-term solution.

“I used to think that shooting the deer would solve the problem, until I noticed that over the course of the years that the sharpshooting program was in operation, we still had a large deer count," Klaus said. "Sharpshooting isn’t enough, or isn’t the way to solve this problem.”

But other residents don’t want the deer killed at all, hoping the city will opt instead for large-scale sterilization of the animals. Resident Allison Jaynes would rather the city fund a program to incentivize homeowners to plant landscaping the deer won't eat.

"Your hostas are not really worth killing for," Jaynes said. 

But other residents say the population is beyond that, growing so large the deer no longer discriminate among plants.  

Meanwhile some bowhunters have said they would pay to hunt in the city, if local officials would let them.

"I use Iowa City as an example of how not to manage your deer." - Greg Harris, Iowa DNR

“I’m in favor of the bowhunting option, like a lot of the other cities in Iowa have done. I’m probably the oddball in the room I guess," hunter Mark Finley said. "I know Coralville has killed approximately 1,000 deer with their bow hunting system over the years.”

Another resident in favor of bowhunting argued a natural death may be more cruel for a growing deer population with limited food sources and increasing vehicle collisions. 

"One way or another, deer are going to die. And often it's...naturally it's going to be more brutal than hunters," said the man, who did not want to be named. "Disease can take months. Being hit by a car is pretty brutal."

Meanwhile, one official with the state Department of Natural Resources said Iowa City is an outlier and a "lone ranger" in hiring sharpshooters and not allowing hunters to help manage the urban deer population. Greg Harris is a depradation biologist with the DNR.

"I use Iowa City as an example of how not to manage your deer," Harris said.

While residents disagree on how to manage the deer population, many at a recent public meeting on the issue agreed something must be done to sustainably cap their numbers.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter