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Iowa Pheasant Decline: What has Happened?

Part I of II

By: by Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Iowa pheasant hunters harvested more than one million birds annually 33 times since 1962. Since 2000, that’s happened only twice. In the upcoming season, the projected harvest of 150,000 to 200,000 is expected to set another record low. With its title of Pheasant Capital of North America gone for more than a decade, Iowa seems destined to be an afterthought in pheasant hunting circles.

How has the once grand tradition of hundreds of thousands of hunters heading to the Iowa countryside each autumn become nearly nonexistent?

This is the first in a four part series looking at pheasants past, present and future in Iowa.

Pheasants arrive, thrive in Iowa

As the Pheasant Population Goes, So Go the Hunters

Iowa hosted 30,000 to 50,000 nonresident pheasant hunters in years past. They stayed for days in small town hotels, ate in the cafés down the street and bought supplies from local stores; a multi-million dollar shot in the arm for small town Main Street.

“It was pretty common to see hunters from Michigan, Georgia, Texas and every state around us,” said Rich Jordet, law enforcement supervisor for the DNR in northwest Iowa. “I remember checking hunters from 14 different states on opening day.”

Nonresident license sales also provided a boost in Iowa’s Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund.

Wild pheasants were brought over from China by Owen Denny in 1882 to establish a population in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That initial stocking and other imports from China are the sources for current day ringnecks across the U.S.

Iowa’s wild population came through an accidental release of the Oregon birds’ descendants.

An early 1900s wind storm turned loose 2,000 wild pheasants from William Benton’s Cedar Falls game farm to Iowa’s patchwork of small grain, hay and corn fields and pastures. They thrived, eventually prompting crop damage complaints.

By 1913, the Iowa Conservation Commission, the forerunner of the Department of Natural Resources, was stocking hatchery raised pheasants’ anticipating creation a hunting season. Results, though, were mixed.

In 1924-25, the Commission began to trap and relocate wild birds and eggs to southern Iowa.

Iowa’s first pheasant season was October 20-22, 1925 in Kossuth, Humboldt, Winnebago, Hancock, Wright, Cerro Gordo, Franklin, Mitchell, Floyd, Butler, Grundy, Black Hawk and Bremer counties. The season opened one-half hour before sunrise and ended at noon with a bag limit of three cocks.

“It appears that the first counties opened to pheasant hunting were also those where complaints of pheasants caused crop damage were common,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa DNR.

In 1932, state game farms closed, but reopened in 1938 after several poor weather years. Better weather in the ‘40s helped bird populations recover. By 1945, most of northern Iowa was open to hunting. Through the 1940s and ’50s, it became apparent that pen-raised pheasants were not contributing to wild bird numbers. Yet, by 1965, pheasant hunters spread across Iowa, save for a few southeastern counties.

Populations Ebb and Flow

Northwest, north-central and central Iowa held the most pheasants through the 1950s. However, since the 1960s, changes in agriculture led to a decline in pheasant numbers. By the early 1970s, southern Iowa had become the premier pheasant range. The last state game farm was closed in 1973 and entire state was opened to hunting in 1976.

Pheasant populations in the northern and central regions rebounded with establishment of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) between 1985 and 1996. Counts rose in the southern counties, initially, but have declined steadily since 1992.

Even in its heyday, with hunters consistently harvesting more than 1 million roosters annually, clouds hung over Iowa’s pheasant population.

Since 1962, populations and brood size have declined. Changes in farming practices greatly reduced grassy field corners and fence rows. Advances in seed genetics nearly eliminate weeds and allow crops to be planted closer together.

But weather is THE major factor influencing pheasant numbers.

Cold, snowy winters reduce marginal habitat and concentrate pheasants and predators. By spring, much nesting habitat is reduced to road ditches, terraces and grassed water ways, where spring rains flood nests and drown chicks.

“The bottom line is weather trumps all when it comes to hen survival and nesting success,” said Bogenschutz. “Tell me the amount of snowfall, the amount of rain and the temperature in the spring, and I can tell you if pheasant counts will be up or down that summer. The weather models are that accurate. We are now in a weather pattern of five consecutive winters with heavy snow and springs with lots of rain. That has not happened in 50 years.”

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