Less than favorable conditions during the Spring nesting season will have a major hand in the quality of the upcoming Pheasant season in Iowa. Officials of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are predicting as many as 58,000 hunters are expected in the state when the pheasant hunting season begins this coming Saturday, Oct. 29.
However, those hunters may find the pickings rather slim.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources says pheasant numbers are down this year compared to 2010 but that as many as 200,000 birds are expected to be harvested during the upcoming season, which runs through Jan. 10, 2012.
The predictions come after the annual roadside counts, which are made each Summer in late August, when DNR staffers drive set routes on county roads and count the number of birds they see on their route. The routes are run on a daily basis for a period of time to give researchers data to make their population projections. Based on the roadside counts of 2011, DNR wildlife biologists say there is an average of just seven birds in every 30 miles of driving.
Data shows that since 1962, the population of wild pheasants has been declining, based in part on changes in agriculture, such as more row-crop farming. However, the major factor in the decline of pheasant populations is Mother Nature.
Cold, snowy winters reduce habitat that is not prime, and forces pheasants to nest closer together. Such conditions also bring predators closer into the nesting area. With more row cropping, actual nesting areas become limited to road ditches, field terraces and grass waterways, but when the Spring melt and Spring rains come, those areas can often flood, drowning newly-hatched chicks, an occurrence which has taken place many years in a row.
"The bottom line is weather trumps all when it comes to hen survival and nesting success," noted Tod Bogenschutz, Upland Wildlife Biologist for the Iowa DNR. "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 patter of five consecutive winters with heavy snow and springs with lots of rain. That has not happened in 50 years."
Case in point: pheasants nest and hatch in April and May and this past Spring was disastrous eight inches of rain fell in the state and the survival rate of hatchlings was very low. A normal rainfall during the period is seven inches or less.
"A lot of folks remember back-to-back bad winters we've had in Iowa before," noted Mark McInroy, a Wildlife Research Technician for the DNR. "However, they forget that we have never had five consecutive years of bad winter/spring combinations. There hasn't been a chance for our pheasants to recover."
Add in the loss of prime habitat, due to heavy snow cover, and pheasants face the proverbial third strike.
From 1990 to 2005, 2,500 square miles of Conservation Reserve Program lands, along with hay and small grain fields, were lost for habitat. That amount of land would equate to a strip of land eight miles wide, running from Davenport to Omaha. The end result no habitat lands, no birds.
What does this mean for area hunters who will don blaze orange on Saturday?
"We estimate a harvest of 150,000 to 200,000 birds this Fall, based on our August roadside survey," Bogenschutz forecasted. "About 30 percent of the harvest is in the first nine days of the season, and that's a lot of activity spread over the first two weekends."
Even with a somewhat gloomy forecast, Iowa hunters aren't the only ones who will be facing tougher odds.
South Dakota's Department of Fish and Game is projecting a 46 percent decrease in that state's pheasant population, while Minnesota DNR officials say their populations are down 64 percent. In North Dakota, pheasant populations are projected to be 36 percent lower for the upcoming season. Nebraska game officials say there are 20 percent less pheasants in the Cornhusker state this season.
While there will be pheasants to be harvested, it will take patience and skill to bag the elusive fowl this season.
Iowa's Pheasant Season runs from October 20 through January 10, 2012, and shooting hours will be from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The daily bag limit is three roosters, with a possession limit of 12 birds.