IOWA OUTDOORS - Iowa's million buck rip-off

Tuesday, January 29, 2002

If I walked into a bank and asked for a million dollars, I'd be put behind bars. But, if I organized a deer-hunting operation that grossed a million dollars, I'd be championed as a community hero!

The bank's money isn't mine; neither are the deer taken by fee-hunting operations. People don't condone bank robbery, but, it seems the general public doesn't care about what happens to Iowa's deer population.

Yet, the Iowa DNR nets some $4 million dollars per year from about 150,000 licensed resident deer hunters and another million or so from the 8,000 non-resident hunters. Deer, and deer hunting, are big business for the DNR. This money pays for lots of DNR programs; some are related to deer and deer management, some aren't.

In a mood of not caring and disrespect for a valuable natural resource, enterprising people have found ways to make their own personal million dollars. I accessed a web site of one of the entrepreneurs today. I learned that, for a basic fee of $2,750, I could hunt Iowa's deer on leased land for four days. Lodging in a sumptuous log mansion (lodge) was included for five nights; each extra day would cost $250 per day.

The home page of the web site went on the indicate that 18 of the top 50 whitetail bucks scored by Boone and Crockett (B&C) measurements have been taken within 100 miles of the lodge. Food plots are planted; habitat is managed for deer production. It wasn't mentioned on the web page, but deer feeders are part of fee-hunting programs. These big deer aren't accidents; they're home-grown.

The problem here is that the deer being harvested (sold) from this leased land are the property of the people of Iowa, not the private operation. Record books (B&C Club) recognize only deer taken legally in a free-ranging status. So, while this operation has a game preserve, presumably fenced in to keep wild deer out and tame deer in, the preserve deer won't qualify for B&C recognition.

Each bed in the main game lodge of just his one operation can accommodate 21 hunters, if kept full during October through December. Just 10 beds, kept full, mean a gross income to the lodge of some $575,000 per year. Multiply that gross times 10 similar operations scattered around the state, and we come up with over $5 million - per year - potential gross income from selling Iowa's deer.

Those ten similar operations will remove some 150,000 acres of private land from accessibility to the general hunting public, too. The

average "Joe Hunter" won't be able to trespass on those lands, even though the deer on those lands are owned by the people of Iowa.

To give you an idea of what's happening on a local scale, imagine a half-mile wide corridor on either side of the Little Sioux River running from Linn Grove to Sioux Rapids. This is about five miles, as the crow flies, straight across. There's about 3,200 areas in this corridor in about 17 different farms. I conservatively estimate there's about 800 deer on those lands; one landowner counted 70 head running off his land while hunters harvested another 30 from the 400-acre farm.

Of those 17 farms, deer hunting on four is restricted to "invitation only." That's a "euphenism" for trophy hunting - only big bucks are shot. Deer hunting is allowed on the other 13 farms but restricted to friends, neighbors and relatives. The average "Joe Hunter" has little or no chance to walk in the woods; deer harvest is restricted to those with permission to trespass during deer season.

Those given permission to hunt deer are all after that "big buck." So, of the 800 head running around, about 95 percent are does. The DNR has no control over the individual landowners about giving permission to hunt. They set the seasons, indicate which type of weapon can be used during which season, and answer the telephone to respond to trespassing complaints. Or, to crop-damage complaints from the landowners themselves.

We don't have an organized hunting lodge set up in this area, yet. But, we could have, very easily. Just a small payment of, say $10 or $20 per acre of timberland, enough to pay taxes, is a pittance compared to the potential gross income. Expand that to include other large tracts of land, and one has to ask the question of "Just who is managing Iowa's deer population?" On paper, the DNR is - practically, the individual landowners are.

It takes about three or maybe four shotgun reports to get all the deer living on those 17 farms moving toward the four farms without hunters. Then, it's a simple matter of the selected hunters looking over the animals and picking the biggest trophy buck they can find. Deer are mobile, they'll eventually move back to the other 13 farms to spend the rest of the winter. That's if they can find enough browse. Those 700-plus head of does eat a lot. They also produce at least one fawn the following year to compound the issue.

The Linn Grove-Sioux Rapids example is being repeated all across Iowa. I could go to any one of the major river watersheds where substantial old-growth timber still exists and find a carbon copy of the

example. It's even worse near cities and large towns - deer and vehicles and azalea bushes don't mix.

Now, I think it's about time the DNR and the Iowa legislature gets their heads out of the fog they've been in and think clearly about what's happening here. Ask the pertinent questions: Just who's managing Iowa's deer herd? Private landowners or the DNR? Who is liable for crop damage caused by excessive numbers of does, munching spring, summer and early fall? Who regulates those fee-

hunting operations; game

preserves do have some type of regulations, but, are they strictly enforced? And what about vehicle damage? Heck, that's another can of worms...

But one thing's for sure - very few Iowans have the $2,750 necessary to hunt leased lands. And, unless the DNR and the Legislature come to grips with their deer-management policies, rules and regulations, the average "Joe Hunter" in Storm Lake and all across the state will become disillusioned. They paid the $27.50 for a deer hunting license, but have no place to go. So, why hunt? And there goes one of the DNR's main sources of income out the window...