Iowa’s pheasant population is a fraction of what it once was, but there is still hope for the birds to come back.

One hunt I went on near home in eastern Iowa last month was like stepping into a time warp, although it took me back fewer than 10 years. In a half-day four of us shot 11 wild roosters on the farms of Pheasants Forever’s State Coordinator Tom Fuller and his neighbors.

Great a day as it was it was no different from dozens of hunts I enjoyed in the 1990s and into the middle of the last decade in Iowa. One million bird harvests used to be the norm out here, putting us on a par with South Dakota. Small towns across the state held early morning opening day pancake breakfasts. Iowa attracted up to 50,000 non-resident hunters.

No more. Iowa’s pheasant numbers have been in free fall for the past five years due to cold, wet weather and habitat destruction prompted by high grain prices. In 2011 Iowans bagged slightly over 100,000 birds–10 percent of what we used to shoot. I know now how southern quail hunters my age feel. I too have watched an upland tradition fade out in a wingbeat.

As the hunt at Fuller’s showed, all is not yet lost in Iowa. We had a mild winter and dry spring which gave our remaining birds a break and a good nesting season. If pheasants have good habitat like the ground we hunted,* having lots of birds is easy. After the hunt Fuller–a self-described “glass half-full guy” talked about PF’s plans for Iowa.

The focus of Pheasants Forever’s newest initiative with the Iowa DNR calls for managing selected Wildlife Management Areas for pheasants and using those acres as “hubs” building habitat around them by working with adjacent landowners.

“Iowa used to be a mosaic of grain, pasture and sloughs,” said Fuller. “Now the habitats are fragmented.”

Instead of corners of cover everywhere, now there are islands of grass and brush amidst biological deserts of rowcrops with all the cover removed to grow a few more bushels of corn. The goal is to build outward and create areas of connected habitat.* I have no doubt the initiative will work. I do doubt Iowa will ever have pheasants everywhere again–we have simply lost too many acres to the bulldozer and the plow–but I also believe there will be pockets of habitat where you can have a hunts just like the Good Old Days way back in 2003.

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*On the land we hunted Fuller and his neighbors plant food plots, nesting and roosting cover. They do no active predator control, which Fuller believes is ineffective and inefficient. “I don’t worry about predators like hawks and coyotes that take individual adult birds in the fall,” he said. “Nest predation is a concern but the best defense against it is “dilution,” the creation of large areas of habitat that make it harder for predators to find nesting birds.” I would second that: I have been lucky enough to hunt on farms with great pheasant numbers and not a single one of those landowners practiced predator control or trapped. Habitat is the answer.

CC image from Wikipedia.