September 26, 2022
By Gordon Whittington
If there’s one thing mankind has proved eager to do, it’s to rearrange the pieces on nature’s chess board. Transplanting plants and animals has been going on for so long, in so many places, that it can be hard to recognize what’s “native” from what isn’t. Some of these moves have turned out well. South Dakotans certainly view the Chinese ring-necked pheasant as one of their own, having named it the official state bird. Red clover is native to Europe, but it’s also recognized as the state flower of Vermont. Texas anglers don’t mind that stocking their lakes with Florida-strain largemouth bass has boosted chances of catching a 10-pounder. And the whole world has benefited from the fact soybeans (China), wheat (Iraq) and corn (Mexico) all are now grown far outside their native ranges.
On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we find some real problems. Russian zebra mussels, Asian cogongrass and Argentine fire ants are but three of many imports that get no positive reviews here in North America, regardless of how nicely they might play back home. The take-home message is that our interactions with “natural” environments aren’t always as pure as they might seem when we’re enjoying nature. This even can extend to the deer we’re chasing. Whitetails as a species might be native to where we now find them, but their ancestry sometimes is less than certain.
We’d need a king-sized bookcase to hold every restoration story from the whitetail world. In the first half of the 20th century, many state wildlife agencies bought or traded for animals to help them rebuild their herds. But it wasn’t always done as part of some detailed master plan. In fact, an example from the Midwest shows just how happenstance the process could be.
A LEGENDARY STATE
If you polled hunters about the No. 1 place for world-class whitetails, Iowa would get tons of votes. Every hardcore trophy chaser recognizes the state as one of the best. In fact, the first hunter- taken buck ever to grace the cover of this magazine — Larry Raveling’s 282 0/8-inch Boone & Crockett non-typical from Clay County — was on and in our April-June 1983 issue.
Iowa’s track record for world-class typicals is especially strong, with Lloyd Goad having shot his 197 6/8-inch former Pope & Young world record there in 1962 and Wayne Bills a 201 4/8-inch giant during the 1974 gun season. However, non-typicals such as the Raveling buck and Tony Lovstuen’s 307 5/8-inch former muzzleloader world record from 2003 (cover story of our Jan. 2004 issue), show elite racks from this state can take virtually any form.
Based on all this, it might be tempting to say Iowa simply has the best native antler genetics. But are its bloodlines unique? For that matter, are they even the ones the state started out with? To try to answer those questions, let’s peel back a few layers of whitetail history.
FROM ABUNDANCE TO ABSENCE
Iowa was home to many big-game animals when Lewis and Clark’s intrepid band of explorers paddled up the Missouri River over two centuries ago. Unfortunately, during the state’s first half-century of statehood, virtually all bison, elk, black bears and even deer were eliminated from within its borders. While farm crops now help fuel the state’s production of big whitetails, the deer herd’s downfall started with the coming of the plow. Settlers needed wood for building and fuel (including in steamship boilers along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers), and they wanted to plant all the cropland possible. Aggressive timber cutting quickly reduced the deer cover and valuable native browse plants.
Meanwhile, subsistence and market hunting took a more direct toll on the herd. And even that long ago, some farmers were shooting deer to reduce crop damage. Although the state government began to set structured hunting seasons in the 1850s, by around 1900 there were scarcely any whitetails left. Of course, it was part of a wider problem. Across the continent, Plains bison were virtually gone, and even the once-abundant passenger pigeon was on the verge of extinction. By 1913, when William T. Hornaday published his influential book, Our Vanishing Wild Life: Its Extermination and Preservation, the situation was dire indeed.
BAD FENCES = GOOD NEIGHBORS
Iowa began its whitetail recovery somewhat by accident, and it involved a Pottawattamie County landowner whose name is unknown to the hunting world. A description of his role in history comes from the pages of Hornaday’s book, provided here without further editing: “In 1885, W.B. Cuppy, of Avoca, Iowa, purchased five deer, and placed them in a paddock on his 600-acre farm. By 1900 they had increased to 32 head; and then one night some one kindly opened the gate of their enclosure, and gave them the freedom of the city.
“Mr. Cuppy made no effort to capture them, possibly because they decided to annex his farm as their habitat. When a neighbor led them with a bait of corn to their owner’s door, he declined to impound them, on the ground that it was unnecessary,” Hornaday wrote. According to the book, by 1912 the local deer herd had increased to 400 (doubling roughly every three years) and had spread across the area surrounding Cuppy’s farm there in western Iowa. The state had ended deer hunting in 1898, and it would remain closed for 54 years.
Thus, despite occasional poaching, the whitetail’s prolific nature was allowed to be on full display. The source of the five deer kicking off this boom remains a mystery. No one knows where Cuppy bought them, from whom, or even how many were bucks vs. does. We have no idea as to the bucks’ rack sizes or shapes, as there apparently were no photos taken or antlers kept. But those few deer clearly played a huge role in rebuilding Iowa’s herd.
Near Avoca lie the headwaters of the Nishnabotna River, which flows southwestward from there before winding through the Loess Hills and emptying into the Missouri River in the northwest corner of Missouri. The Loess Hills are a long north-south chain of silt ridges. With no deer hunting allowed at the time, the escaped deer and their descendants would have found it easy to reach the cover of these hills and then spread into surrounding areas.
Even today, most deer shot by hunters along the state’s western edge come from the Loess Hills. And some of the bucks taken there have been huge. A great example is Carroll Johnson’s 1968 shotgun trophy, a former state-record non-typical scoring 256 2/8. This Monona County brute was featured on our August 1985 cover. And Iowa’s first-ever muzzleloader record, a wide 210 4/8-incher shot by Mike Moody in 1990, was tagged in the hills of Fremont County farther downriver.
Regardless of the source of the Cuppy herd, as soon as those deer escaped, western Iowa was on its way to having a viable population again. The rest of the state remained virtually deerless, however, for years. Then a similar incident 200 miles to the east added another interesting page to the story.
For serious students of Iowa history, the Singmaster surname brings to mind big animals, but not necessarily whitetails. The Keokuk County family was renowned for its Percheron draft horses, which played a key role in early farming. Several generations of Singmasters had a hand in the horse trade, but it was J.O. who made buying and selling them his life’s work. In fact, during his life the Keota resident made 56 steamship trips to Europe to buy horses and transport back to Iowa for resale. At various points in the farm’s history, other animals also were acquired. They included a herd of bison, started with a pair from the remnant Yellowstone region herd, and a number of elk from an unknown source. Both those captive herds could be observed by visitors to the farm, and they were great curiosities. But of more specific interest here is that the Singmasters also owned whitetails.
As with the Cuppy herd, the source of these deer is apparently a mystery. Perhaps they were local survivors, though there’s no proof any remnants of the native population still inhabited the area. Given J.O.’s penchant for travel and trade, the founding stock could’ve easily come from far away. What’s clear is that in 1922, a flood took out part of the fence in which the Singmaster deer were contained. We don’t know how many deer J.O. owned, but it’s widely accepted that around 60 escaped and took up residence along the nearby Skunk River. No attempt evidently was made to recapture them.
In the century since that “release,” the Skunk River valley has entrenched itself in whitetail history. That drainage has yielded many giant bucks, including two of the most impressive ever: Sam Collora’s 193 3/8-inch bow kill in 1996 (our Feb. 1997 cover story), and Hattie Peck’s 232 3/8-inch shotgun non-typical in 2008. The spectacular frames of these racks suggest that wherever the Singmaster bloodlines originated, they were just as strong as those of the farm’s awardwinning horses.
THE STATE GETS INVOLVED
Iowa’s official effort to reestablish whitetails didn’t begin until six years after the Singmaster escape, when the state purchased two deer from Minnesota. Like Wisconsin and Michigan, Minnesota had enough remote woodlands that it hadn’t suffered the heavy loss of deer experienced by Iowa and other heavily farmed parts of the nation. That said, there’s no known proof of where in Minnesota the deer actually came from.
We do know the pair ended up in Ledges State Park, along the upper Des Moines River northwest of Ames. There they evidently not only survived but multiplied. In fact, by the 1940s, descendants of the transplants were being trapped and released in various other places across Iowa.
The Des Moines watershed, like the others mentioned, has certainly yielded its own mega-bucks featured as NAW cover stories. Tony Lovstuen’s muzzleloader world record immediately comes to mind, but so does the massive Joe Franz blackpowder giant featured on the front of our Spring 2015 issue. Some of the state’s biggest racks continue to come from this part of the state.
Thanks in part to government efforts but perhaps far more to the “jailbreaks” of the Cuppy and Singmaster herds, Iowa’s deer population exploded in the first half of the 20th century. By 1952, farmer complaints about crop damage had become so common that a limited hunting season was held for the first time in 54 years. Although hunters today harvest roughly 100,000 deer annually, the herd still numbers around 500,000. That’s impressive for a state that a century ago had a mere handful.
As great as Iowa’s whitetail bloodlines clearly are, the geographic origins of those genes remain cloudy. For all we know, the herd’s current DNA might trace back mainly to Minnesota, Nebraska or another state. When there’s no detailed documentation of the events, we can only speculate.
What’s beyond question, though, is that Iowa’s haphazard early releases kickstarted one of the whitetail world’s greatest success stories. Lush agriculture, a lack of rut gun seasons and a relatively low hunter density compared to the rest of the Midwest have allowed the herd’s transplanted genes to be expressed to their amazing potential. Even if man’s early role in rebuilding the herd involved more accident than intent, we can’t deny the serendipity of the results.