Iowa sees increasing numbers of raccoons amid less trapping

Iowa sees increasing numbers of raccoons amid less trapping

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA “Virtually every experienced wildlife control specialist has a good raccoon story or two.

Some incidents showcase the skill and finesse of the nocturnal creature. Wildlife biologist Joe Taylor recalled a case that stood out at his company, Paw Control Wildlife Solutions in Hiawatha.

“The raccoons…went to the basement, climbed the stairs and ate from the bowl of cat food. (The owners) couldn’t imagine this sort of thing being possible anywhere,” he said. “I must have laughed a bit – I hadn’t thought of that one.”

Others who have suffered greater levels of destruction are not laughing so much. For wildlife control specialists like Ben Stutzman, raccoon calls were among his most memorable with Catch’em Critters at Wellman.

After growing up in the countryside with a raccoon who mixed in with his family’s cats, he’s seen the best and worst of little bandits. Sometimes they break into porches to steal bird food or set up community latrines on the deck.

Other times, their determination puts human engineering to shame. A call early in her career was about a mother raccoon who had become separated from the den she made with her offspring in a house. After returning from an outing, she found her usual ventilation inlet blocked with plywood by owners who thought they could fix the problem on their own.

“She decided she was going to come in on her own,” Stutzman told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. So the raccoon started by ripping the shingles off the roof where the attached garage met the house. When she found tarps underneath, she continued. Eventually, she chewed through the metal soffit to find her young.

“Raccoons are really tough. They are amazing survivalists,” said Stutzman, who has run his wildlife solutions business for 11 years. “I saw where they chewed up 2 by 4 studs to cross a wall laterally.”

With the raccoon population in Iowa nearly tripling since 2006, more and more homeowners are aware of their own raccoon stories.

In 2006, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources counted 2,417 raccoons in its nighttime surveys in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. This year it had 6,486 – an increase of more than 268% in the last 16 years and a 23% increase in the last year alone, despite localized outbreaks of the deadly distemper virus.

County data shows Benton and Iowa counties with some of the highest counts in the state. More urban counties, like Linn and Johnson, tend to have lower counts.

From 2019 to 2020, Joe Taylor’s Paw Control Wildlife Solutions saw a 52% increase in raccoon calls. In addition to a larger spike this fall than in previous years, the overall increase in raccoon calls has held steady over the past three years for his business.

Each year, Paw Control responds to more than 100 raccoon calls and captures hundreds.

Stutzman’s more rural business hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in raccoon-specific calls, but he’s heard from others who have attracted hundreds of raccoons to their cornfields. Raccoons make up about 25% of his calls.

“For the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing astronomical numbers from these (cornfields),” he said. “So I know the population is up and doing well.”

State Representative Dean Fisher, a Tama County Republican representing House 72 District, knows the devastation of the loss of sweet corn to raccoons. After years of losing sweet corn just before harvest, he started hearing from constituents suffering major damage.

A farmer, he said, suffered $10,000 damage to a combine harvester when he started it after a raccoon climbed inside. Another found dozens of raccoons in a cattle feeder.

He hopes the stalled legislation, which he plans to reintroduce in the next session, will help farmers who think Iowa’s current DNR allowances for killing pest animals aren’t enough.

“You can’t stay out 24 hours a day to see when one of these creatures enters your field,” he said. “You have to eradicate them in your area first, take preventive measures to thin out the population before the damage even begins.”

Current state rules allow raccoons to kill outside of their short hunting season only when they are considered a nuisance. A common refrain Fisher hears from farmers is “pull it, shovel it and shut up.”

Preston Moore, Iowa state director of the Humane Society of the United States, takes issue with the scope of the bill, which goes beyond hunting.

“Implementing a year-round ‘anything goes’ opening season on raccoons won’t have the impact he hopes. It’s not just an open season — it’s offering complete raccoon deregulation to the DNR,” Moore said.

By removing state surveillance on raccoons, Moore said the agency with the best understanding of the landscape for natural resources would no longer be able to collect important data on the species, such as outbreaks of raccoons. canine distemper.

“Right now, if you have a problem with raccoons, you can control the animal with immediate threats to property. You can walk through solutions with DNR. There is a good nuanced approach that is already working,” said Moore said “This (bill) would take all of that off the table.”

Conflicts between raccoons and humans are nothing new, he said, and lawmakers should focus more on where and when conflicts occur to resolve them properly, rather than adopting abrupt changes that could have unintended consequences.

With very few natural predators in Iowa, scavengers eat a lot of unsightly things and serve as a great cleaner in the ecosystem, Moore said. The state should instead consider providing protections for natural predators that would reduce raccoon populations, such as bears and mountain lions, he said.

“Right now, there is no legal protection for them. They are run over by a car or killed usually shortly after being spotted,” he said.

A few different factors made for the perfect storm to keep the raccoon population growing unchecked.

The increase in raccoon numbers coincides with a decline in sales of fur trapping permits in Iowa and low pelt values ​​in international fur markets, according to the Iowa DNR. Markets in Russia and China, some of the biggest fur buyers, have been complicated by difficult foreign relations spurred by U.S. support for Ukraine and Taiwan.

As fur becomes less fashionable with many Western consumers, pelts that cost up to $40 in the 1970s now sell for less than $5, according to an Iowa DNR wildlife biologist. Data reported by the Des Moines Register shows that even over the past decade, the number of trapped raccoons has dropped significantly, from around 308,000 in 2011 to around 34,500 in 2021.

“The state of Iowa has for a long time wiped out our native carnivores,” Moore said. “We have few native predators (of raccoons.)”

Taylor said derecho disturbances to the environment combined with derecho repairs to homes have created new vulnerabilities for raccoons to exploit. As the hollowed-out trees they used for shelter were toppled, the raccoons stared at the unclad houses.

“People had a hard time finding a coating. Some of these ground things might not look bad, but raccoons can get on most roofs and they will destroy those vulnerabilities,” Taylor said.

With an intelligence unmatched by many other nuisance creatures, they adapt with experience as they figure out how to escape insufficient living traps set by inexperienced owners.

“One thing that can happen in urban areas is you can have situations where you have very educated raccoons,” Stutzman said. “Once a raccoon has been in a house, there really isn’t a house it can’t go into.”

There is a myth that raccoons that go out during the day get sick. During certain times of the year, this is not true. As winter approaches, many try to increase their fat stores with extra feedings.

If you see one, keep your distance.

Because they are scavengers, one of the best preventive measures is to avoid leaving food around your property – pet food dishes, bird feeders, etc.

“They’ll adjust their own habits and behaviors and start feeding on those things,” Taylor said. “They won’t want to travel that far, so they’ll try to break into the shed, the attic – a place to live that’s much closer than if they hadn’t left out food sources.”

Avoid watering your lawn in the fall, as this brings earthworms to the surface. As temperatures drop, insects and underground worms are a good source of protein for raccoons who don’t mind digging up a yard.

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