I’ve been covering problems surrounding Iowa’s burgeoning deer herd for a few years now and I’ve learned it’s an issue that can get pretty emotional. Mostly, I talk to farmers about damage and crop losses when deer munch on fields and pastures. We discuss the extent of crop losses and special hunting programs the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) uses to control hot spots, places where the herd has gone out of control. But conversation inevitably goes way beyond economics.

Rural Iowans, like their urban counterparts, worry that a bigger deer population simply translates into more accidents on highways and backroads. In the blink of eye you, or someone you love, could slam into a 200-plus deer that happened to meander out of the ditch. Sure, a lot of these accidents are fender-benders. But some can cause serious injuries, or maybe even death, to spouses, children, parents and anyone on the road.

The statistics back up those fears. A survey last year by State Farm Insurance showed that Iowa ranked fourth in the country in deer-related accidents. The insurance company’s survey projected that the size of Iowa’s deer population meant there would be nearly 32,000 deer-vehicle accidents each year. That makes an Iowan’s chance of slamming into a deer over the next 12 months one in 105.

Even more chilling than those odds are the stories I hear about the number and severity of vehicle-deer accidents. A southern Iowa farmer told me recently that during March there was at least one vehicle-deer accident per week on the county highway near his home. A northeastern Iowa farmer said he’d simply lost count of the number of deer that he and the other drivers in his family had hit in the past few years. But he knew it was in the triple digits. And a colleague of mine tells of hitting a deer while traveling 65 miles an hour on the Interstate near Omaha. The animal appeared out of nowhere and wandered into the passing lane. Although my colleague’s airbags deployed after the accident, he was luckily able to avoid other traffic while negotiating his now-totaled car to the shoulder.

I’ve never hit a deer in my extended travels around Iowa, but I’ve had several close calls. Probably the scariest occurred when I was teaching my youngest daughter to drive. We had just started the process and I was teaching her the basics, like how to stay near the center of the street and avoid parked cars, when a doe popped up out of nowhere and stared right into the windshield. My daughter screamed, let go of the steering wheel and, luckily, slammed on the brakes. Being a very green driver, she could have just as easily mistakenly hit the gas pedal and hit the deer, or jerked the wheel and plowed into a nearby parked car. After that incident, my wife and I started to limit our teenagers away from streets and roads where we’d heard that deer accidents were common.

Will that do any good? It might, but who knows? It’s the sheer randomness of deer accidents that makes them so darn scary. One moment you are tooling down the highway minding your own business, and the next moment you are bearing down on a living, breathing roadblock that can cause a serious, and even deadly, accident. That’s why the need for DNR to keep the deer herd under control goes way beyond simple economics. It can be a life and death matter.

Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck serves as the News Services Manager for Iowa Farm Bureau.