Your Best Bets for Ringneck Pheasant Hunting in Iowa in 2013
November 01, 2013
The improved pheasant harvest remains well below those of a decade ago, when hunters sometimes bagged over a million birds. Enthusiasts going pheasant hunting in Iowa hoped 2013 weather would permit another big jump this fall.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been tracking weather, pheasant counts and harvest data for 50 years. Analysis indicates population fluctuations are closely tied to precipitation.
Some birds perish in winter storms where cover is inadequate. Snow concentrates surviving pheasants, forces them to search longer and harder for food and makes them more visible, increasing predation. Pheasant numbers have never increased following statewide average snowfall exceeding 30 inches from December through March.
Heavy spring rains flood nests in low-lying areas, decrease hatch rates and chick survival, and improve scenting conditions for nest predators. Pheasant numbers rarely increase when the statewide average precipitation for April and May exceeds 8 inches.
Snowfall topped 30 inches for five straight years from 2007 to 2011, while precipitation was above 8 inches during three. Harvest fell from nearly 750,000 in 2006-2007 to just over 100,000 in 2011-2012.
In 2012 snowfall was only 17 inches, while April/May rains totaled 7.5 inches. The harvest increase last year was unsurprising.
Last winter the snow returned, with a statewide average of 31.3 inches. Rainfall in April topped 6 inches before winter decided to reappear.
On May 2, a late-season blizzard hit much of Iowa, bringing up to 14 inches of snow. Many hens had likely initiated nesting at the time, and a handful of broods may have already hatched.
"It wasn't good," said DNR Upland Wildlife Research Biologist Todd Bogenschutz. "That wet, heavy snow definitely had a negative impact."
Unseasonably cool, wet conditions persisted throughout the month. Total precipitation for April and May exceeded 15 inches, among the highest totals on record.
"It's not the kind of year we were hoping for," Bogenschutz said. "My models already indicate the counts will go down. I've been using this model 11 years; it's been wrong once."
Bogenschutz did note pheasants are resilient and determined nesters. Hens don't re-nest once they've hatched a brood, but will make second and even subsequent attempts if they lose their initial nest. While these second-chance broods can contribute significantly to the population after a tough spring, smaller clutch sizes and lower success rates are all but inevitable.
The only bright spot, such as it is, would be northwestern Iowa. Already sporting some of the highest pheasant densities statewide, the area received about 25 inches of snow, slightly below the regional average of 27. Rainfall was around 14 inches, still excessive but slightly below the statewide average.
HOME SWEET HOME
While year-to-year pheasant numbers change with the weather, the long-term outlook is determined by the amount and quality of habitat. Optimal habitat can help birds hang on despite tough weather and rebound quickly when conditions improve.
Recently, tight budgets have made it challenging for DNR and county conservation boards to optimally manage their wildlife areas. The agencies have turned to non-government organizations for assistance in meeting this challenge.
Through Pheasants Forever's (PF) Enhance a Wildlife Area Program, Iowa chapters are working with wildlife agencies to provide financial assistance and/or manpower for projects, such as planting shelterbelts, establishing or reseeding prairies, controlling invasive species, etc.
"Overall, we've identified over 100 areas across the state we're going to be working with," said PF Iowa State Coordinator Tom Fuller.
Yet Iowa has relatively little public land, a situation unlikely to change soon, given rising land prices. Both Fuller and Bogenschutz note most Iowa pheasants will continue to be produced on private property. The key to a healthy population, they agree, is to keep as much quality private habitat on the landscape as possible.
DNR private-land specialists and PF farm bill biologists both work with landowners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to maximize participation in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and similar initiatives.
In addition to aiding wildlife, such programs help to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and blunt the impact of flooding, Bogenschutz noted. "Clean water and keeping the soil in place resonates with just about everybody. The more [water] you can keep on the landscape, and the slower you can keep it coming off, the less flooding you'll have downstream."
With over 186,000 acres of CRP set to expire this year, conservationists will be challenged to maintain those benefits. A general CRP sign-up last spring was well received, although total enrollment was not available at press time.
USDA also offers several CRP continuous sign-up programs. CP-38, the State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement Program, allows state officials to design initiatives targeted to specific wildlife needs.
DNR developed the 50,000-acre Iowa Pheasant Recovery plan. Enrolled acres will offer pheasant nesting cover, winter cover in the form of either shelterbelts or blocks of switchgrass, and grain food plots.
"It's a one-stop shop for pheasants," Bogenschutz said.
While any new or retained acres are beneficial, larger blocks of contiguous or closely situated habitat are more effective than smaller, isolated tracts. "A lot of our best wildlife habitat, public or private, tends to be islands," Fuller noted.
In the Wildlife Cooperatives program, PF farm bill biologists are working with DNR and USDA to create wildlife corridors by encouraging landowners adjacent to large permanently protected wildlife areas to enroll in CRP.
PF also works with landowners to offer quality seed, guidance and technical assistance to make sure enrolled acres provide optimum benefits for wildlife, the environment and the landowner.
"We're making sure every piece of habitat is the best it can be," Fuller said.
Although high commodities prices have tempted many landowners to forgo conservation efforts, Fuller noted current CRP payment rates have been updated to be more competitive. "Conservation programs are much more attractive than they were five years ago."
Those improved rates, along with the efforts of DNR, PF and other organizations, have helped to minimize the ongoing loss of habitat. PF has also worked on the federal and state level to maintain and improve funding for conservation work.
Although poor weather may suppress pheasant numbers again this fall, Fuller believes the ongoing initiatives will eventually permit a sustained recovery.
"Our Iowa membership and volunteers have never been stronger," Fuller said. "I'm excited about the future."
PLACES TO GO
Iowa's most consistent pheasant-producing areas lie west of Interstate 35 and north of U.S. Hwy 20. However, localized pockets of high pheasant density are scattered across the state wherever there is well-managed habitat.
The Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) is a voluntary walk-in program in which private landowners open their property for hunting in exchange for DNR assistance with habitat management.
There are currently over 7,000 acres enrolled at over 40 sites across the state. "We've had a lot of positive feedback on that," Bogenschutz said.
A listing of IHAP sites, as well as of state-owned wildlife management areas, can be found at www.iowadnr.gov.
Many county conservation boards (CCBs) around the state offer wildlife management areas as well. Information about many of these areas and links to county websites can be found at www.mycountyparks.com.
As part of the Enhance a Wildlife Area initiative, PF chapters have been working to improve many state and county wildlife areas. Public-hunting opportunities should increase in the future as pheasants and other wildlife benefit from these efforts.
Brice Morris, PF Northern Iowa regional representative, recommended the following:
The Clayton County PF chapter has been working with both DNR and the Clayton CCB to plant food plots and shelterbelts on public areas in the county, including the Big Springs WMA near Elkader and the Becker Property near Guttenberg.
Clay County PF is enhancing the Tom Tuttle Marsh near Spencer with an $8000 shelterbelt consisting of red cedar and shrubs.
Emmet County PF is supplying fertilizer to enhance food plots on several public areas in the county.
Iowa Pioneer-Cerro Gordo County PF has done native seeding on several public areas in the county.
Franklin County PF has provided funding to reconstruct short-grass prairie and oak savanna on the 400-acre Creeden Prairie, near Hansell. The area was formerly all smooth brome with no diversity, noted Franklin CCB Director Jason Gooder. "We've noticed a lot of young birds in the areas where we've done this. We're very pleased with the outcome."
Sac County PF has planted 550 cedars at Burrows Pond WMA, near Nemaha.
PF Southern Iowa Regional Representative Jared Wiklund highlighted these projects:
Northern Polk PF has improved prairie areas by removing undesirable trees at Paul Errington Marsh. A controlled burn conducted last spring further enhanced the nesting and brood-rearing cover.
Wiklund noted the area offers diverse habitat for a variety of upland and wetland species.
The chapter has also removed trees and seeded native prairie at Big Creek State Park WMA, and provided seed for food plots and wetland plantings at Chichaqua Bottoms WMA. All of these sites are near the Des Moines metro area.
Fremont/Mills PF has planted food plots and performed edge feathering and brush removal to improve habitat on Lake Shawtee near Randolph in Fremont County and Haynie Slough near Pacific Junction in Mills County. Since they do not have a WMA in their county, members of Pottawattamie County PF have performed similar work at Willow Slough in Mills County, near Hastings.
"Residents of southwest Iowa should have some great places to hunt this fall thanks to the partnership of the DNR and local Pheasants Forever chapters," Wiklund said.
Although not available at press time, results from DNR's August Roadside Survey of Small Game should now be posted at www.iowadnr.gov.
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