There is still over a week remaining in Iowa’s bowhunting season.
When hunters return from the field, they'll bring more than deer with them. They'll bring valuable information about Iowa’s wildlife populations.
After decades of over-hunting and habitat loss, much of Iowa’s native wildlife has returned.
The Iowa DNR can confirm this thanks in part to its Bowhunter Observation Survey.
“When you’re in a tree, you get to see a lot of wildlife,” says wildlife research supervisor, Willie Suchy.
While spending their hours in tree stands, 100 select bowhunters in each county record what they see
“By looking at that," Suchy says, "it allows us to survey a lot broader area with a lot more intensity than if we had to do it.”
Adding the survey data to their own, the DNR estimates there are 450,000 white-tailed deer in Iowa. And consider this: in 1936, conservationists estimated there were fewer than 600.
Another giant success story is the Canada goose.
“Well, in the 60s there were NO breeding Canada geese here in Iowa," says waterfowl biologist, Orrin Jones, "and we currently estimate the population to be about 74,000.”
The wild turkey was extirpated from Iowa by 1905. There are now roughly 150,000.
The prairie chicken’s comeback has been much slower - only about 20 birds exist near Kellerton in southwest Iowa. They need grassland and cover as do pheasants, badgers, and skunks, and in modern Iowa that’s bad news.
“We’ve lost a lot of the grazing and small grain and hay component of farming," Suchy says, "and we do a lot more of the corn and soybeans so their populations aren’t doing as well.”
A walk with furbearer biologist, Vince Evelsizer yields better news.
The red fox population is stable. There are 8,000-10,000 river otters in Iowa. And the bobcat—once completely gone—is now back.
“We estimate their population to be between 4000 and 5,500," says Evelsizer, "something like that at this time.”
Iowa is NOT wild enough for mountain lions, any more, though there have been at least three here, this year.
“To my knowledge, every mountain lion that we’ve been able to conform in Iowa has been a young male, and that’s real typical,” Evelsizer says.
Young male lions wander in from the west, so do timber wolves and black bears from the northeast, but with no females to find, they don’t stay.
Like the deer and raccoon, the coyote is an animal that’s doing better thanks to people.
“Anywhere there’s any kind of habitat at all," says Evelsizer, "even green spaces and that; they’ll take advantage of that.”
Hunters and trappers will take at least 7,500 coyotes this year.
Iowa’s nature lovers might find the best news in the air above them.
The bald eagles will be here, soon.
“It’s been phenomenal," says Karen Kinkead, who directs the wildlife diversity program for the Iowa DNR. "That’s a species that’s come back without any reintroduction efforts on our behalf.”
Three-hundred-and-fifteen nests were counted, last year. More than 3,200 eagles.
The osprey is also coming back, and the sandhill crane, and the trumpeter swan. And this spring, look close on the Capitol, and on the American Enterprise Group Building; you’re likely to find a nest of peregrine falcons.
“So after DDT was banned," Kinkead says, "we began bringing peregrine falcons back in to locations, and now they’re coming in on their own.”
Eighty-years ago, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote that Iowa’s wildlife was in dire condition. Though that’s no longer true, the work here isn’t finished.
“We need to improve water quality," Kinkead says, "we need to improve soil erosion, we need more green space, we need more habitat for the wildlife.”
“I think we have the potential to gain habitat, I think we remain positive about that and always are working for that.”
It could certainly happen. Another success story. Look how far we’ve already come.
The DNR's wildlife research programs are funded in part by the sale of deer-hunting licenses. Iowa sells roughly 395,000 of those each year.