For hundreds of years, America's wilderness has been shrinking due to expanding cities and suburbs, leaving outdoors lovers like hunters with fewer opportunities. By around 1900, massive overharvesting by hunters drove America's deer nearly into extinction (less than a half-million deer, from a high of 45 million in 1450).
Legislators stepped into the fray, and improved conservation regulations changed what could've been an environmental embarrassment into a true wildlife success story. By 2000, the population had rebounded to 38 million deer. (Deer populations have declined slightly since then.)
These days, those millions of deer often live side by side with humans, and in suburban areas they rarely feel pressure from predators. That means they can freely gorge themselves on gardens, bird feeders and other easy food sources that their wilder brethren could only dream of. As such, these deer can achieve the huge girth and large antlers that hunters fantasize about.
Thus, whitetail deer populations are quite healthy — sometimes to the detriment of both the animals and people. City hunting can help balance wildlife populations, particularly in instances where the animals sometimes cause major problems.
"Urban deer hunting is a management practice used in many cities and suburban areas across the United States," says Jason Andrews, program manager of the Urban Deer Hunt in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "In the early 2000s the City of Cedar Rapids was experiencing a high number of car versus deer collisions as well as significant vegetation degradation on private property. Many possible solutions were researched by a committee comprised of the Iowa DNR [Department of Natural Resources], City of Cedar Rapids officials, pro-hunters and anti-hunters."
Ultimately, their research determined that the most cost-effective and sustainable population management solution would be an annual urban bow hunt.
"Urban deer hunting is popular in cites that have a high urban/suburban/rural interface as well as wooded areas within their city," says Andrews via email. "In Cedar Rapids all quadrants of the city have appropriate habitat to sustain deer populations thus hunting is allowed. I must note that hunting is only allowed on private property. No parks, right of ways, or any other public ground [can] be hunted."
Andrews adds that there are distance requirements that hunters must maintain from neighboring properties; that way camo-bedecked hunters aren't strolling through congested or highly urbanized areas. And of course, hunters must obtain written permission from property owners.
"Our [Cedar Rapids] hunt is highly regulated to maintain privacy, proper distances, safety, and verification of hunters legality and ability to humanely hit their target," he says.
Deer Hunt Controversies
Flying arrows and city deer? Perhaps you're thinking about all the potential disasters that could result from urban hunting.
At the top of that list is people or pets being inadvertently shot and killed by accident. Or maybe you'll imagine a wounded deer staggering into a neighbor's backyard during a children's birthday party.
Actually, no matter where hunts take place, it's usually the hunters themselves who get hurt. Statistics show that most hunting injuries are self-inflicted. And those that involve firearms (which typically don't include urban hunts) involve accidental discharge, and the person that's harmed is usually the hunter. Statistics for injuries involving bows are sketchy but they appear to be very low.
In Iowa, the program has been extremely successful, notes Andrews.
"The City of Cedar Rapids Urban Deer hunt has been in place for over 10 years," he says. "Since its inception the city has realized a 47 percent reduction in car versus deer collisions and far fewer complaints from citizens about vegetation degradation."
It's not just a Midwest phenomenon. A 1999 study looked at the effects of a "controlled archery deer hunt" on a residential community in Connecticut. It found that the program was very effective. "The archery hunt reduced the local deer herd by 50 percent during the first year, and many residents subsequently experienced reduced deer damage to landscape plantings," the study said. "No hunting accidents occurred, no conflicts between hunters and residents were reported, and no deer hit with arrows died outside the hunting area. The most significant cost to the community was additional law-enforcement personnel required to respond to potential conflicts with protesters."
A 2011 study from the USDA that looked at controlled deer hunting in Fontenelle Forest (FF), Nebraska (a natural area surrounded by development) found "controlled hunts at FF have reduced densities of deer in the immediate area to tolerable levels and have been accepted by area residents, with relatively little media coverage and public scrutiny."
Indeed, in many places, the problem is not that there are too many urban deer hunters, but actually not enough. Only 5 percent of Americans over the age of 16 hunt, according to a 2018 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, half as many as 50 years ago. Much of the state budgets for wildlife conservation come from funds generated by firearms and hunting permits and taxes on guns and ammunition. Further, many states use urban hunters as a low-cost way to control deer populations. In Bull Shoals, Arkansas, 77 hunters participated in 2014-15 season; the city wanted to boost that number to 100 for the 2015-16 season.
Even the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, which banned urban deer hunting in 1998 after complaints from residents who found deer carcasses in their backyards, was considering bringing it back in 2019 because of the increase in deer roaming suburban streets and the number of vehicle accidents this was causing.
Becoming an Urban Deer Hunter
To counter the risks of people getting hurt, urban hunting in Cedar Rapids is limited to bows only, so no guns are allowed. Furthermore, hunters must complete safety courses that reinforce best practices regarding equipment, tactics and legal issues.
"As mentioned earlier there are strict distance guidelines to maintain safety and privacy of neighboring properties. Additionally, hunters shooting skill is verified annually with a proctored bow shooting test," says Andrews. "Hunters are also urged to only take high percentage shots from close range. Hunters are also advised not to take shots toward property lines, buildings, etc."
Hunters must also properly check in their harvested deer with local authorities. That way, conservation managers better understand the effectiveness of their game management programs. And deer hunting season runs from fall to winter. Outside of that period, hunting is not allowed. Hunters also need to pay the city for a hunting license. (These regulations are similar to ones found in other cities that permit hunting.)
But you need more than just your hunter safety certification and deadly aim to bag a huge suburban buck. You need a whole new hunting mindset.
For starters, you must ask for permission from landowners, who often say no. Getting permission from one property owner may not be enough — you'll be better served by having access to several contiguous tracts of land. That way, if you shoot a deer and it bolts (which often happens), you can pursue it across property lines.
There are also other politics in play. Successful urban hunters stress the need to be as low-key as possible, even when they have proper permission. They tend to avoid letting passersby observe their activities, going so far as to hiding their vehicles from sight. That reduces both competition from other hunters and confrontations with anti-hunter residents.
What's more, deer accustomed to human scent behave differently. That's why experts say you should deploy as many trail cameras as possible to assess potential target deer. You should also be prepared to lose those cameras, because it's not uncommon for them to be stolen by hikers or tresspassers.