Left without a weather changing device, the Iowa DNR and other conservation groups are working to improve existing habitat and getting new habitat on the ground so when Mother Nature does relent, pheasants are in the best position for recovery.
That work includes increasing habitat on private land, using the federal farm bill, conducting an Iowa legislature-sponsored pheasant and quail restoration pilot project, participating in a new habitat for hunting access pilot project and developing a new pheasant plan targeting Iowa’s various climate regions.
In 2002, the DNR conducted a pheasant and quail restoration pilot project on private land, primarily in four counties in southern Iowa – Clarke, Decatur, Lucas, and Wayne. The DNR paid for habitat improvement on about 2,500 acres per year for five years.
The study concluded in 2007 and used spring crowing counts to judge the outcome. There was an average of 6.4 roosters per stop on the managed farms, versus 2 roosters on unmanaged farms. Quail counts found similar results – 2.3 bobwhites per stop on managed farms versus 0.2 on unmanaged farms.
“Those numbers are not great by any means but what it shows us is that habitat will attract existing birds,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
In general, most wildlife species do not benefit by having less habitat and, with grain famers enjoying healthy profits, the amount of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve program has been shrinking each year.
But not all private land has gone that way.
Mike Nelson believes the sound of pheasant cackles will again be common across southern Iowa’s landscape. Nelson has been adding habitat on his Lucas County farm since he bought it four years ago and the results have been pleasing to the eyes and ears.
While the number of pheasants and quail on Nelson’s farm is not huge, particularly with the recent weather patterns, it still showed him that the right mix of habitat will draw and hold birds.
Nelson installed a continuous edge, 20 acres of CRP, buffers around timber and feather edging. Each year he adds a couple of projects, including most recently planting dogwood and nine bark bushes. These efforts provide nesting and winter survival opportunity for the birds.
Not only has he been seeing pheasants and quail on his property, he is hearing from neighbors who are seeing birds as well, which is exciting, he said.
“As guys start seeing birds, they are starting to believe we can get them back,” Nelson said. “I do believe we can get there. It just takes work.”
That excitement is echoed by Doug Spies who jumped at the chance to buy the land he grew up hunting when it was offered for sale and then enrolled his 60 acres of rolling Woodbury County hills into the Conservation Reserve Program 12 years ago.
Spies spent time and money to install high quality habitat, including adding 20 forbs, a few acres of bushes, he includes annual food plots and manages the grasslands with fire.
The result? Unlike most of Iowa, Spies had great pheasant hunting last year and this year he even has some quail. His property is adjacent to another 100 acres in CRP that happens to be owned by his childhood hunting friend, providing additional habitat.
“I have pheasants here,” Spies said. “Best pheasant hunting was out my back door.”
But once he left his property, there was not much habitat in the area to hunt.
Gordon Garrison can relate to that.
Garrison has a mix of grasses, forbs and bushes, restored wetlands, farm ponds and a water diversion canal on 200 of his acres in Emmet County in continuous and general CRP. And yes, Garrison has pheasants.
“Habitat restoration has been very rewarding for me,” Garrison said. “The property is totally different than what existed in 1972 when we moved here. The opportunity to exit the house for a morning or evening walk among the ‘wild things’ is a priceless adventure.”
Replicating that success on a smaller scale is a large part of the workload of the DNR’s private lands staff. The DNR has been working in partnership with Pheasant’s Forever’s Reload Iowa Program to ramp up efforts to help landowners establish habitat on private land.
The DNR is also promoting a new three year pilot program trading habitat improvement for hunter access.
Iowa’s new hunting access program will establish or improve existing habitat on private property in exchange for allowing hunter access. This is the first year for the program that enrolled 10 sites in nine counties opening 1,365 acres of private land to hunters.
“Landowners are interested in this program and based on the response during this first year, we are optimistic that we could increase the number of sites and acres enrolled each year,” said Kelly Smith, with the Iowa DNR’s Wildlife Bureau who is leading the new program.
Hunters who choose to hunt on these areas must obey hunting laws and must remain only on the land enrolled in the program.