An extra inch or two of spring rain. A few more inches of winter snow. Each by itself raises short term concern for Iowa pheasants. Strung together over multiple years, though, they spell major trouble for Iowa's pheasant population, as well as our tradition of pheasant hunting and the economic boost it provides rural Iowa.
Heading into the 2011 season, biologists are forecasting a record low harvest of ringnecks-again. Not that many years ago, it was normal for hunters to take a million birds a year; often well above that. This year, the projected harvest is 150,000 to 200,000.
Why the plunge? The primary factor is one we cannot changethe weather. Coming out of the 2010-2011 winter, Iowa marked five years in a row of average statewide snowfall over 30 inches. That causes heavy mortality among overwintering pheasants. In a half century of standardized data collection, Iowa pheasant numbers never have increased in a year following a winter with 31 inches of snow.
Add an April-May hatching period with over eight inches of rain-the fourth time in five years-and survival of chicks from those remaining hen pheasants dropped drastically, too. Iowa sees an average of seven inches of rain during that nesting period. In the last 50 years, only once has there been a significant increase in pheasant numbers, when eight inches or more fell.
"A lot of folks will remember back to bad winters we've had in Iowa before," agrees Mark McInroy, wildlife research technician for the Department of Natural Resources. "However, they forget that we have never had five consecutive years of bad winter/spring combinations. There hasn't been a chance for our pheasants to recover."
Throw in loss of good habitat-especially winter cover-and pheasant survival faces a triple whammy. From 1990 to 2005, Iowa lost 2,500 square miles of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), hay and small grain lands. That equals an eight-mile strip across Iowa from Davenport to Omaha. Another 485 square miles of CRP has gone back to row crops since 2007. That leads to heavy game bird losses over the winter.
Yet where there is quality habitat, there are pheasants.
Bill Kron owns 200 acres near West Branch, in Cedar County. On his CRP acres, he has grasses and wildflowers. He works periodic burning into his management routine. Alfalfa, clover and small food plots of corn and sorghum enhance cover and food sources.
"Our counts are down, but I can still go down a mile long stretch of gravel and count 10 pheasants-more or less--on any given day," says Kron.
He lives within minutes of the two Cedar County routes surveyed each August by DNR wildlife biologists. Each 30 mile route is along heavily cropped fields, with little year-round cover. One route yielded zero pheasants this summer. The other tallied birds in the single digits.
The answer to plummeting pheasant numbers? The birds need a break.
"We've seen birds recover on their own, when Mother Nature has taken a break," recalls McInroy. "We had a severe winter in 2001, then a wet spring. However, pheasant numbers doubled after good weather patterns in 2002 and 2003. The best thing Iowans can do is to maintain or improve habitat. We have habitat now that could support an 800-thousand pheasant harvest, if we could get a couple years of favorable weather."
Still, only about one percent of pheasant habitat is on public land. The DNR's private lands program and non-government conservation groups, like Pheasants Forever, are working with private landowners to get more high quality habitat on the ground.
Another feature is Iowa's walk in access program, through which property owners are reimbursed for conservation practices and allowing hunters on specified acres. This year, 1500 acres are offered. Over three years, that program may grow to 10,000 acres.