Are Pheasants Back? What to expect next year in Iowa

I saw more pheasants this year than I have in a very long time. I can remember healthy populations when my brother could limit on birds just by walking ditches and terraces, but that was ten years ago. In recent years it has been much more difficult. However, this year I consistently found birds, and many of the hunters I spoke with had good seasons as well. I decided to find out more about the current pheasant population and future projections. I reached out to a few local DNR officers for much of the information. All of the figures and tables were provided by the Iowa DNR. Here are the factors to look out for, and what to expect in years to come.

How to Interpret Pheasant Statistics

First of all, the August Roadside Survey is a much better indicator of total population than harvest reports. On sunny mornings each August, DNR officers across the state drive 215 separate 30-mile loops counting small game species. The compiled report is given in the August Roadside Survey. Harvest reports vary depending on how many hunters participate. For example, in 2007 roughly 600,000 pheasants were harvested in Iowa while in 2017 the number was closer to 221,000. Though the pheasant population was nearly the same in each year, 30,000 more hunters participated in 2007 (DNR). The good news is that across the state the 2018 roadside survey showed pheasant numbers up 39% and every region either increasing or holding steady. The estimates are the second highest in a decade but remain below the long-term average.

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What Affects Pheasant Numbers

Harvest statistics are also not a good indicator of next year’s population. Research has been completed comparing the southernmost Minnesota counties, which repeatedly reduced bag limits, to the northernmost Iowa counties, which had not reduced limits and even expanded hunting opportunities. The results show that heavy snowfall, wet springs and habitat loss lead to the greatest decrease in population, not hunter success. If a region receives greater than 30 inches of snow in the winter, eight inches of rain in the spring and has an average springtime temperature below 54 degrees the population will decrease.

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Along with weather conditions, habitat is the other factor that affects pheasant numbers (DNR). Iowa lost 2,984 square miles of pheasant habitat between 1990 and 2015 (Table 2. USDA). Though today Iowa has 1,801,983 acres of CRP, the total amount of habitat loss over the last 30 years is unlikely to rebound entirely. The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the number of potential CRP acres from 32 to 24 million. In December, the 2018 Farm Bill added three million acres back, bringing the total to 27 million acres of CRP across the country. However, Todd Bogenschutz, a upland wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR, explained to me that only one million acres will be designated to traditional CRP, and, at the current price point, is unlikely to lead to significant increases in habitat.

Industrial hemp has also been mentioned as a potential revenue source for Iowa farmers as well as a habitat booster. Bogenschutz was doubtful of the impact due to the fact the hemp would likely be farmed in wide rows with heavy herbicides, meaning little quality habitat. In regards to other biofuels Bogenschutz said:

“We’ve been talking biofuels since 2008 farmbill and markets have yet to materialize.  Not to say they won’t but the infrastructure to develop new crops whether industrial hemp or switchgrass are SIGNIFICANT.”

Hemp or switchgrass would need to rival the profitability of corn and soybeans in order for Iowans to see an effect. The current weak farm market reduces the incentive for farmers to turn unutilized bottoms and draws into farmable acres. The habitat acres are likely to remain close to what they have been the last few years.

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In the end the picture looks good for Iowa pheasant numbers over the next few years. The table of statewide pheasant trends shows that only twice in the last 50 years has Iowa experienced 3 or more consecutive winters with >30” of snowfall. The most recent being from 2008-2011. In each case, pheasant numbers plummeted. We are unlikely experience this again in the next few years. However, due to habitat loss,  I wouldn’t expect pheasant numbers to rebound to Iowa’s glory days. Consistent seasons similar to 2018 would be my best estimate. Thank you for reading, Stu

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