Pheasant-season opener spotlights habitat challenges
Monday, October 29, 2012
Bryan Wittrock of Halbur and his dog, Diesel, take a break from Saturday’s pheasant hunt in rural Carroll County. The hunt included 28 members, representing Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The group harvested 40 roosters.
To longtime Carroll County Pheasants Forever habitat chairman Kenny Snyder, his experience on Saturday’s opening of the Iowa pheasant-hunting season was a sign of the times.
“We went to our spot, and our spot had disappeared,” Snyder said.
Instead, the former buffer strip west of Ralston is being readied for row-crop planting next spring.
The three hunters in Snyder’s group harvested three birds in a couple of hours but still enjoyed the time together.
However, Snyder observed in a phone interview Sunday, “There’s a conversion going on. We’re going to lose a lot of our buffer strips because farmers can net a lot more dollars off those acres than they can through conservation programs.”
Snyder noted a large percentage of buffer-strip contracts are up for renewal from 2011 through 2013.
“A few are renewing but a lot of them are going to row crops,” Snyder said. “It’s pretty tough to compete. Most of those acres are going to net $500 when they’re being farmed, and conservation is in the $200 to $250 range. You can hardly blame them (farmers). They do run a business.”
Iowa corn prices reported Friday were about $7 to $7.50 a bushel and soybeans over $15 a bushel.
If prices remain high, Snyder said, “Farmers are going to farm everything they can.”
Describing his experience Saturday, Snyder said, “We hunted the little bit (of buffer) the farmer did leave, and we saw a fair number of birds.”
In a news release last week, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported its annual roadside survey in August indicated Iowa’s pheasant population improved for the first time in seven years.
Counts showed an average of eight birds per 30-mile route, up from a record low 6.8 birds last year. The number of hen pheasants counted increased 9 percent, compared to 2011. Chicks per brood — a measure of survival of young pheasants — increased 13 percent.
DNR credits the mild winter and relatively warm, dry spring for the rebound.
DNR upland research biologist Todd Bogenschutz forecasts hunters will harvest 125,000 to 200,000 roosters this season, which runs through Jan. 10.
He noted pheasant-survey counts increased 35 percent in north-central Iowa and 58 percent in northwest Iowa, while central Iowa saw a 12 percent bounce.
Bogenschutz commented, “It took five years for Mother Nature to knock us down. We had one good year. I think we need about two more years, getting more hens through the winter and building on that.”
Snyder acknowledges Pheasants Forever’s challenges in creating and maintaining habitat.
“Anything we do for conservation benefits all wildlife, so I think the group is going to stay just as strong as always,” he said. “The mission is to have more public land and develop on private land where we can.”
For the rest of this season, he said, hunters may have success because the state has been drawing fewer out-of-state hunters due to previous years’ pheasant-population plunge.
“The diehard hunters are going to be able to put some birds in the freezer,” he said. “But they’re going to find the same thing I did. Some of their favorite spots have gone away.”
Tracy Buck, Carroll County Pheasants Forever secretary-treasurer the last four years and president the previous nine years, said he’s encouraged by the number of pheasants he’s seen near his home southwest of Mount Carmel.
“Three weekends ago,” he said, “I counted 41 pheasants in the front yard. They were out walking around in the mowed grass and around the pond.”
Buck’s home, which he purchased from Snyder when Snyder moved to the Glidden area, has about 3 acres of wildlife habitat including wildflowers, prairie grass, switchgrass, cedar trees, fruit-bearing shrubs and a nearly 1-acre pond.
Buck said of the pheasant population, “I think it’s bounced back, not yet to where we want to see them but definitely more than we’ve seen in the last two or three years.”
Buck said of the impact on hunting from this year’s early harvest and the opening weekend’s sunny weather with temperatures in the mid-40s, “It probably makes it easier. But with the weather being pretty mild, the birds can still be out in open fields and don’t necessarily have to stick to the habitat because it’s not that cold yet.”
The DNR says said that with the harvest basically complete, hunters may concentrate on remaining cover to find birds: CRP acres, grassy waterways and shelterbelts.
Buck said he’s looking forward to hunting this weekend. He missed the opener because of another commitment.
“I have a 1½-year-old Lab (hunting dog) and an 11-year-old Lab and hope the 11-year-old can teach the young one some things this year,” he said.
Buck said of the challenges facing wildlife-habitat efforts, “We have a tough battle. When you see ground selling for $16,000 an acre (a recent sale in the Arcadia area), for groups like us that are trying to put some more public hunting out there and trying to promote conservation, that definitely makes it tough. But we keep trying.
“When you see people spend $20,000 to take 2 acres of ground and put them back into production, how many years is it going to take to get that investment back? It’s kind of sad. It’s going to be a battle for the next few years.”
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