Iowa Pheasants Endure Brutal Winter, Cold Wet Spring

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Pheasants Endure BOONE – Iowa’s hard winter and cool, wet spring made life here difficult for pheasants. Take away places to hide from the weather or predators, and to hatch young, and life gets even more challenging.

“There is no question that weather conditions this past winter and spring was bad for pheasants,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“Pheasants are resilient to weather, but populations may not recover from the loss of habitat. These birds will move to fence lines and road ditches, but predation is much higher in these small habitats,” Bogenschutz said. “They have fewer places to run and no place to hide.”

Pheasants lost critical habitat necessary to survive poor weather when the equivalent of 233 square miles of land enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) were plowed under last fall when their contracts expired. Add in another 209 square miles of CRP that will expire this fall and will likely be plowed under and the total CRP loss is about equal to the size of Mills County, or a strip of grasslands one and a half miles wide running from Davenport to Omaha.

Iowa Pheasants Endure Brutal Winter“In areas with good habitat, we will have good pheasant hunting. With our current outlook, there will likely be less competition out there this fall and hunters willing to hunt past the first week will likely have the field to themselves,” he said. “This year would be a good year to introduce someone to pheasant hunting, or to bring a young son or daughter along. It is an opportunity to spend quality time together and to pass along our hunting heritage to the next generation.”

Bogenschutz uses a weather model based on 40 years of weather data and the August Roadside Survey to predict nesting success and the model is correct 80 percent of the time. The winter was the 10th snowiest in 121 years of snowfall data, and the spring was the 12th wettest and 31st coldest in 136 years of spring data.

“Based on these weather data, our model predicts Iowa’s statewide pheasant population will likely be significantly lower in 2008,” he said. “In the northwest regions where snowfall and rainfall were lower, populations may fair a little better and offer good hunting opportunities, depending upon remaining summer weather conditions.”

In other regions, Bogenschutz expects counts could decline 50 percent or more compared to 2007 estimates. Habitat will be the key to finding birds and it is getting more difficult to find with the record crop prices, he said. With flooding this spring and high crop prices some are asking that CRP lands be released without penalty so they can be farmed again. Farming these marginal lands again would greatly increase soil erosion and lower water quality and have a devastating impact on grassland wildlife like pheasants, he said.

Upland game hunting had a $220 million dollar impact on Iowa’s economy in 2006. A significant loss of CRP would seriously hurt the rural retailers in Iowa that depend upon hunter revenues. “If you have an opinion on the release of CRP, I would not hesitate to share that opinion with Iowa’s congressional delegation,” said Bogenschutz.

Turning the Habitat Tide

Iowa PheasantsIowa is currently accepting land in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CRP State Acres for wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, but only 27,700 acres were designated for Iowa. The land must be in a SAFE project area and meet basic CRP eligibility requirements. Producers entering the program will receive annual CRP rental payments, incentives and cost-share assistance to establish habitat-enhancing natural covers on eligible land. Visit the DNR’s private lands webpage for more information: http://www.iowadnr.com/wildlife/privatelands/index.html

The USDA Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) specializes in creating habitat on land without any cropping history and the program provides about 60 percent cost share for approved practices. Eligible practices include brush management, native grass seeding, edge feathering, forest stand improvement, tree and shrub establishment, prescribed burning and more.