A Fighting Chance For Iowa Pheasants

A Fighting Chance For Iowa Pheasants

Pheasant populations and habitat may be On the decline in Iowa, but increasingly more attention is being paid to finding the problems and fixing them. (September 2009)

Iowa hunters are hungry for good pheasant news, particularly after the low pheasant counts and spotty statewide hunting success of 2008.

Avid pheasant hunters who have experienced low success in their traditional hunting areas, take heart. There is a pheasant-hunting oasis, and it is right here in Iowa.

Cure the pheasant-time blues with a trip to northwest Iowa this pheasant season, which opens Oct. 31 and runs through Jan. 10.

Yes, the four-county area of Dickinson, Emmett, Clay and Palo Alto draws hundreds of hunters to the region each year.

No, it does not mean hunters won't be able to find places to hunt.

True, the counties pull lots of out-of-state hunters, as well as hunters from across Iowa, to the region, but with more than 20,000 acres of public hunting ground, chances are pretty good hunting parties will experience successful hunts and find plenty of ground to cover.

"This little corridor up here is about as productive as a person can find anywhere in the state," said Jerry Robinson of Okoboji.

Robinson, an avid pheasant hunter who's active in Pheasants Forever, believes the vast number of acres easily handles the hunting pressure every year. And regardless of what the rest of the state experienced through the spring nesting season, visiting hunters will find pheasants.

Upland wildlife biologist Todd Bogenschutz, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, as well as Gary Owen, the IDNR conservation officer covering Dickinson County, said people should not let the number of hunters drawn to the four-county area deter them from planning a trip.

"Even when a group of hunters has passed through a field, the next group to move through, even an hour later, will find birds," Owen said.

Robinson agreed. He's been in hunting groups that followed up just 30 minutes after an area had been hunted and his group came out with birds every time.

Several better-known large public hunting lands in the Spirit Lake, Okoboji lakes region in Dickinson County include Jemmerson Slough, Diamond Lake, Kettleson Hogsback Complex, Spring Run Wetland Complex and Cayler Prairie; Ingham-High Wetland Complex in Emmet County; Trumball Lake and Barringer Slough in Clay County; and Five Island Lake in Palo Alto County. Many of these areas are at least 700 to 1,200 acres, and some exceed 3,000 acres.

The added treat to hunting these larger tracts is looking out across grasslands nearly as far as the eye can see. There's a particular beauty found in this prairie pothole region with gently rolling hills, many running down to a lake or wetland.

Owen and Robinson suggested hunters also consider hunting smaller tracts of grasslands, which often do not get as much hunting pressure.

"There are some smaller tracts of land, and hunters should keep those in mind because they aren't usually hunted as much," Owens said. "Often, pheasants will move into those areas from the larger, more heavily hunted tracts."

Smaller areas include Virgin Lake Wildlife Management Area and Huston Prairie in Palo Alto County; DU Marsh, Turtle Marsh and the Gilbert James Wildlife Area in Clay County; East Des Moines River Access and Grass Lake Wildlife Management Area in Emmet County; and Judd Wildlife Area, East Okoboji Slough and Cory Marsh in Dickinson County.

These areas range in size from 13 to around 300 acres. There are numerous additional choices as well, and they can all be found in one of the best -- if not the best -- guides for Iowa hunters called the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas.

The atlas is the ultimate "where to hunt" guide for anyone pheasant hunting in the state. Make sure to get an updated copy so it includes any newly acquired public hunting ground. The most recent editions, published by the Sportsman's Atlas Co. in Lytton have upgraded graphics with the public hunting areas depicted in red and cities in yellow. Hunters will find conservation and conservation law enforcement contact names and numbers in the information in the atlas as well. The atlas is based off detailed transportation maps and shows locations of public hunting land, as well as outdoor recreation opportunities, attractions and amenities by county.

Most hunting and outdoor retail stores carry the guide. In addition to listing good hunting sites, the atlas can also help the hunter find campgrounds and fishing spots. More can be read about what the atlas contains at the publishing Web site, www.sportsmanatlas.com.

For hunters who aren't set on being out for opening week or weekend, Owens and Robinson suggested a late-season visit to northwest Iowa.

"The land up here stays productive for pheasant hunters throughout the pheasant season," Owens said. In some cases, hunting success may be better because in colder, snowier weather, the birds are more concentrated in the cover. While the hunting is often better that time of year, it also can be the toughest hunting because the snow can get deep.

"It may be tough hunting, but it can be the most productive," Owens said.

Some pheasant hunters also are leery of hunting the area after deer seasons begin, Owens said, but with the large number of acres available, there are plenty of places to go that are wide open. If pheasant and deer hunters are wearing their hunter orange as required, there shouldn't be much of a concern about pheasant hunting during deer season.

Hunters do need to keep in mind that some, if not all, of these areas require the use of steel shot, so make sure to pack the right ammunition to avoid paying fines. Lead shot is prohibited in the wetlands and surrounding areas because it is toxic to wildlife. That's true statewide, so it pays to check on the IDNR's Web site, www.iowadnr.com, where a list of sites requiring steel shot is listed, before heading out to hunt public ground.

Bogenschutz said there might be a few new public areas added to the list, but there are no other new or changed regulations to worry about this pheasant season.

Finding some decent public hunting ground with counts of 20 or more pheasants per route is a good tactic if a traditional hunting spot hasn't been producing. Bogenschutz said there are many Iowa pheasant hunters who hunt their traditional ground ever

y year, regardless of local pheasant survey counts or hunting success from year to year.

"People will find birds no matter where they hunt, but hunters may have to work harder in some areas than others," he said. Bogenschutz won't tell them not to hunt in their usual areas; however, if success rate is a consideration and people want to see more birds, he suggests hunters plan trips to go where counts are better.

Dickinson and surrounding counties comprise the only region of Iowa where pheasant populations grew in 2008. The survey, which includes more than 200 routes, provides the base for a pheasant hunting forecast each season. The 2009 survey was not available at the time of this writing; however, it can now be found on the IDNR Web site. The survey data report includes a map comparing the 2008 and 2009 survey numbers in the nine regions of the state, and the percent of population change in those areas. Analysis of each area's population findings also can be found.

In 2007, the average number of pheasants per route in the northwest region was about 41. In August of 2008, that number had gone up by nearly 27 percent to about 52 pheasants per route. Those numbers are expected to at least hold steady as this pheasant season opens on Oct. 31 and runs through Jan. 10, although there is some question as to whether snowfall affected the population some through this last winter.

Compare that growth with the north-central region of the state where the pheasant population dropped by 30 percent, according to the 2008 count, the central region where the drop was nearly 50 percent and the southeast region where the drop was 74 percent -- pretty disheartening numbers for the state's pheasant hunters.

Growth in pheasant populations in the northwest region, which also includes the counties of Lyon, Osceola, O'Brien, Sioux, Cherokee, Plymouth, Buena Vista and Pocahontas, bucked the trends affecting much of Iowa in 2008 in part because it didn't get the hard-core ice, snow and rain events experienced by much of the rest of the state during the winter of 2007-2008 and the spring of 2008. Still, availability of habitat remains the main reason for the northwest Iowa pheasant oasis.

Having the habitat helps the population stay more stable, and rebound if there has been a population drop because of bad weather.

When pheasant numbers drop from about 20 birds per route to fewer than six in southeast Iowa, it is easy to understand why hunters in other parts of the state are discouraged.

Bogenschutz noted areas of the state that have good cover and habitat had a better success in population growth this year because the habitat provided nesting cover, food for the pheasant chicks, a place to hide from predators and cover from the weather.

Rebounding from the 2007-2008 pheasant population losses will take more time and depend heavily on mild weather conditions in other areas of the state because of an increasing loss of habitat. Acres of grassland and forbes once in the Conservation Reserve Program are still being plowed under to grow crops.

"We are still losing a lot of CRP," Bogenschutz said. "Right now there are about 1.6 million acres of CRP. Back in 2001 there was about 2 million acres."

Declining pheasant populations, and a resulting decrease in pheasant hunters, are frustrating realities for hunters such as Steve Ries of Alburnett, just north of Cedar Rapids. The Linn County area, as with most of the eastern one-third of the state, lost huge numbers of pheasants because of historic flooding during the summer of 2008.

"I'm very discouraged," Ries said. "Even with a better winter this year, I don't think we have hit bottom yet in pheasant population. We are losing nesting cover and farmers are doing away with the remaining fencerows and waterways. They are turning alfalfa ground into corn. There isn't a chance for the pheasant populations to turn around until the government mandates habitat."

A dedicated pheasant hunter and owner of Top Gun Kennels, Ries said he purchased six hunting licenses for different states during the last hunting season. Two of the licenses were for South Dakota, where bird numbers have grown and stayed high. "We'll do that again this year," he said.

Tom Fuller of Oxford, Pheasants Forever regional representative for Eastern Iowa, noted the largest public hunting areas include the Hawkeye Wildlife Area along the Iowa River between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and the Iowa River Corridor farther to the north. There also are public hunting areas in Iowa, Tama and Benton counties that usually produce pheasants but were also affected by the flooding of 2008.

"They are great areas, but the downside is that they are in the flood plains," he said.

Not too many years ago, Iowa ranked No. 1 in pheasant harvest, swapping places occasionally with South Dakota. Now, those numbers have dropped from 1-million-bird harvests to a harvest of between 400,000 and 500,000 birds last season. This marks the fifth consecutive year of pheasant harvests of less than 1 million birds, according to IDNR statistics.

The number of pheasant hunters has declined from 209,000 hunters in 1996, to approximately 100,000 last pheasant season. The numbers were as high as 250,000 in the late 1980s.

That's one reason Ries is so involved in Pheasants Forever, the non-profit group that pumps millions of dollars into habitat restoration.

"It is Pheasants Forever's intention to have enough pheasants for future generations," Ries said. "Not to be on a soap box, but our pheasant population is going nowhere fast."

The loss of pheasant population and the resulting drop in pheasant hunters translates into real dollars for Iowa. Pheasant hunters pump upward of $170 million a year in direct and indirect revenue into the state, according to Bogenschutz. That revenue was down last season when approximately 10,000 fewer hunters took to the fields.

Iowa lawmakers, as well as Pheasants Forever officials from the national level on down, are taking notice.

Legislators have called for the formation of a task force to look at options and ideas for increasing the state's pheasant numbers, Bogenschutz said. The task force includes representatives from the IDNR, county conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Bureau, soil conservation, Pheasants Forever, Iowa Tourism Council, hunters and landowners. By the time the Iowa Legislature opens in January, there should be a report available from this group.

Still, a task force is just that, and any recommendations or actions will take time to have an effect on the pheasant population. "There is nothing short-term that will make pheasants miraculously reappear," Bogenschutz said. However, if the state can increase the amount of habitat, hunters could start to see positive effects in three to four years.

Pheasants Forever officials aren't waiting to hear options and ideas. They have already launched a new program called "Reload Iowa," said Fuller.

"This is a very basic conservation action where we will hire 50 biologists to spread across the state and make contact with all landowners in every county," he said. There were already several biologists hired by the end of March.

The biologists will talk with each landowner about the habitat protection and benefits of habitat diversity (planting a variety of vegetation, rather than simply one type of grass). That will include how good grasslands and waterways have the capacity to improve water quality and minimize flooding. At the same time, the grasslands, which are filtering water and improving the water quality, are increasing pheasant numbers, Fuller said.

The action is in direct response to the falling pheasant population and the loss of upland bird hunters.

"In a 10-year period, we have lost 45 percent of our upland bird hunters in this state and it is related some to the drop in the bird population," Fuller said. "The goal of Reload Iowa is to create more quality habitat or improve what is there on 1 million acres of Iowa land over the next three years."

While Reload Iowa biologists are being hired and paid for by Pheasants Forever and money raised for the program, they will work closely with federal and state entities that control land policy and land use plans, particularly as they have conservation programs available for landowners.

It's a sure bet that Iowa's pheasant population, the Reload Iowa program, along with Farm Bill issues, private landowner programs and more, will be topics of seminars and panel discussions during Pheasant Fest, which will be held at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines Feb. 26-28, 2010. The event was last held in Iowa in 2007 and drew upward of 22,000 people from all over the United States.

If the rest of Iowa could come closer to what northwest Iowa looks like in terms of habitat, the pheasant population would be in much better shape across Iowa, said Owens, the conservation officer covering Dickinson County. The northwest region is lucky that lots of habitat has been protected and restored through wetland programs and the help of Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants forever.

This region of Iowa is known as a prairie pothole region, which means it was naturally wetland area before it was changed by settlers and farmers. Restoration efforts brought in lots of state dollars, which were matched by federal funds. A plus is that when the potholes or wet areas are restored, prairies were added and food plots planted, all key elements in growing and maintaining the pheasant populations.

"That's because in addition to the wetlands, the surrounding areas of uplands and grasslands needed to be protected and restored as well," Owens said. "All the wetland restoration that has been done makes better habitat for pheasants as well. It all comes back to those three major things -- habitat, food and water."

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