By Steve Weisman
It’s been several years since pheasant hunters have been this excited. The results of the 2015 annual August Roadside Count brought forth the data that many of us were hoping for. The results showed a 37 percent increase statewide from the 2014 count, which is the highest count seen since 2007!
Here in northwest Iowa, the survey showed a 46 percent increase over the 2014 count. The average was slightly over 43 birds per 30-mile route. Of course, this is an average, and the counts were significantly higher where good pheasant habit occurred. Looking at the 10-year average, this year’s index is 52 percent above the 10-year average, but it is still 40 percent below the long-term average. In addition, gray partridge numbers also showed a dramatic increase.
The Iowa DNR estimates that pheasant hunters could bag up to 500,000 roosters this fall.
Mother Nature definitely has a profound impact on our pheasant populations. If you look back at the winters from 2007-2011, the state experienced five consecutive severe winters that included over 30 inches of snow across the state. According to DNR data, in the 50 years of roadside counts, Iowa had never had a stretch of severe winters like this before. We all know the results: the bottom dropped out.
Then things began to turn for the better and the pheasant numbers stabilized and slowly began to increase each year. Last winter was pretty mild with well below average snowfall. Here in northwest Iowa, our snowfall total was 21 inches. That put little stress on the pheasants, which reflected a strong overwinter survival, especially for the more fragile hen pheasants.
The spring of 2015 was free of any late season blizzards with normal April rainfall. Although rainfall spiked across other areas of the state and hurt nesting success, here in northwest Iowa, nesting success was excellent. If there were any drowned out nests, this year’s survey suggests several renesting efforts.
So, Mother Nature did her part in helping pheasant numbers rebound. Of course, another mild winter and spring would bring numbers back even more in 2016.
Although we know weather plays a huge role in the success of our upland game birds, the other part of the equation is habitat. Information from the USDA shows that over the past 23 years (since 1990), Iowa has lost 1,850,076 acres of habitat, which equates to 2,891 square miles. Of course, much of that has come as CRP acres have gone back into production.
That trend seems to be changing somewhat as more landowners are looking at a general CRP signup in December. Plus, Iowa landowners have the chance to enroll land into two continuous CRP practices: Iowa Pheasant Recovery and Gaining Ground, SAFE (CP38) practices. That means over 75,000 acres can be enrolled in these two practices on a first come first serve basis. The Iowa DNR also received another $3,000,000 from the USDA to expand the state’s walk in hunting program, Iowa Habitat and Access Program.
A Little at a Time
The old adage, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” fits in here. Yes, we have a lost a lot of habitat, but with these programs, I think we will see more landowners looking at these practices. Plus, as we continue to work toward protecting our air, soil and water quality, I also think we will see more conservation buffers. These come in all forms including riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, cross-wind trap strips, shallow water areas for wildlife, field borders, alley cropping, herbaceous wind barriers and vegetative barriers.
These buffer strips can also enhance wildlife habitat, which is good news for our upland game birds.
Plus, here in northwest Iowa, we have excellent tracts of public hunting areas that hold good pheasant populations.