Courier Staff Writer
Pheasant numbers are up for the first time in seven years, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, thanks to a mild winter last year and a warm, dry spring.
But Kurt Baker, director of the Wapello County Conservation Board, said while numbers may be up, Iowa is still at historic lows.
“So if it’s up 10 or 15 percent, that’s still pretty much nothing,” he said. “We’re still really, really suffering from three to four hard winters before that.”
Annual roadside counts in August showed an average of eight birds every 30 miles, according to the DNR. That’s up slightly from a record low of 6.8 birds last year.
Baker said it will take a few more mild winters and dry springs to make up for the loss since 2005.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pheasant around [southeast Iowa],” he said.
Todd Bogenschutz, DNR upland research biologist, said in a news release that hunters could take 125,000 to 200,000 roosters this fall. The pheasant season begins Saturday and continues through Jan. 10, 2013.
When April and May rainfall exceeds 8 inches, pheasant numbers are greatly diminished, Baker said, and that’s what happened the four to five years prior to this year.
“It took five years for Mother Nature to knock us down. We had one good year. I think we need about two more years, getting more hens through the winter and building on that,” Bogenschutz said.
Thankfully, chicks and hens weren’t flooded out of their habitats this year, Baker said.
“It’s so critical during late May and early June to have relatively dry conditions,” he said.
While it was drier this year, that then progressed to the extreme drought experienced statewide this summer.
“Those chicks rely on bugs, and when there’s less green vegetation, there’s less bug production. It’s all connected,” he said.
This year’s roadside survey showed a 9 percent increase in the number of hen pheasants counted over 2011. The chicks per brood — a measure of survival of young pheasants — was up 13 percent, according to the IDNR.
Iowa boasts 1.6 million Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, and could support a harvest of 600,000 to 800,000 pheasants if good weather continues, according to the IDNR. But Baker said the state is losing CRP acres since commodity prices are so high.
“Are we going to have the habitat to support what we once did? The answer to that question is no,” Baker said.
The Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP), started last year, provides 7,000 acres of private land in 41 counties throughout the state, including 151 acres in Mahaska County and 420 acres in Keokuk County.
“They’re modeling programs in South Dakota,” Baker said. “With Iowa having such a low percentage of its land in public ownership, the real issue is accessing private land, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to do that.”
While Baker doesn’t think IHAP’s incentives are great enough right now for landowners to participate, “at least the DNR is trying.”
“For diehard pheasant hunters, it’s going to be another dismal year,” he said. “The DNR is trying to paint the positive, but when we have all-time record lows, we can’t go any lower without setting another record.”
The increase is good, he said, but it’s going to take a lot of these increases to make a difference.
“If we get the right spring and winter weather, the little increases will become a little bit bigger next year and a little bit bigger after that,” he said.