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Pheasants arrive, thrive in Iowa

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

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.

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 Oct. 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."

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," Rich Jordet, law enforcement supervisor for the DNR in northwest Iowa, said. "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.

Part 2 in Thursday's Daily Reporter:

Where have all the pheasants gone? What is sending Iowa's pheasant population tumbling to new record lows each year?

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I know the DNR likes to blame the weather year after year after year but I think the major reason for pheasant decline is lack of habitat. Corn and bean fields are sustainable habitat for pheasants.

-- Posted by Ervserver on Tue, Oct 25, 2011, at 11:28 AM

Why dont they release 2000 more birds like they did in 1900? Isnt the cause for pheasants forever to repopulate the birds as needed?

-- Posted by spencer lover on Wed, Oct 26, 2011, at 4:22 PM

I agree with both of these comments. Many people have said, "We can't stock the ground with pheasants they won't live and if we do stock only 10% will survive." Well they are Chinese Ringneck Pheasants, not Iowa Ringneck Pheasants. So they were brought here and thrived for many years. My big question is what happens if were in this trend of massive snowfall amounts and wet springs each year? Is Iowa just going to say, I guess no more pheasant season because there isn't any birds left. I think Governor Branstad should have a massive stocking program for 5 years and see what happens. I would be more than happy to pay an extra $10 on my license to see a stocking program go in effect. I can't blame the farmers on this one, they are making a living off their farm ground and you have to do what's best for yourself. Since we don't have much habitat left we have to look to other options. Stocking would be the quickest fix. Another option is shut down the pheasant season all together for 5 years and see if they rebound on there own or set the limit to 1 rooster a day. There are some options but I think ultimately we need to do some stocking like the pheasant capital of the world SD.

-- Posted by gohawks2009 on Thu, Oct 27, 2011, at 11:19 AM

The reason South Dakota is the pheasant capital is because they raise them. I live in SD but originally from the Spencer area. I would be willing to bet that 95 out of 100 birds in SD are farm raised. The hunting around Sioux Falls is no better than Iowa but you get out to the central part where they are raised and if you cant get 3 birds in 30 minutes you dont have your gun loaded and are trying to hit them out of the air. If Iowa would raise them and let them go in the habitat they will thrive.

-- Posted by sdguy on Fri, Oct 28, 2011, at 9:25 AM

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