Hanging on the living room wall in our home is Phil the Pheasant, shot by my husband when he was a young boy. I can already tell our two-month-old son will someday enjoy hunting with dad because of the way he stares wide-eyed at Phil. (I even caught him smiling up at the colorful rooster once). I’m hopeful in the future my son will have a good chance to “take his shot”, because the latest figures from DNR show this year’s Iowa pheasant population is the highest in a decade, with a projected statewide harvest of 250,000 to 300,000 roosters for hunters. I think this good news comes in part, because Iowa farmers continue to implement conservation practices that benefit not just water quality but wildlife.

Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist Adam Janke says there are many factors that play into the population of Iowa’s game birds. In the short term, there is weather with flooding from rain and severe winters taking their toll on habitats and nests. DNR Biologist Todd Bogenschutz agrees, saying ideal conditions for pheasants are less than 8 inches of spring rain and less than 30 inches of snowfall.  As Iowans, we all know how variable that can be year to year—look at all the rains we’ve had in 2018! I’ve known some farmers who have seen five inches or more of rain in an hour. However, both Janke and Bogenschutz agree long-term factors lie within land use.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is important for the success of wildlife. CRP assists farmers in switching their poorly producing crop ground into fields of grasslands, and Janke says the recent momentum toward more diverse CRP that includes native bunch grasses and flowers, has benefitted land-dwelling birds.

As of July 2018, Iowa had 1.26 million acres enrolled in “continuous” CRP, a program specifically targeting environmentally-sensitive land into long-term grasses, trees and shrubs. This is a jump of more than 176,000 acres from July 2017 and accounts for nearly 17 percent of the U.S. total. And if you really want to be impressed, continuous CRP has increased by 359 percent since 2001! Special CRP programs such as the Iowa Pheasant Recovery, Gaining Ground and Iowa Early Successional Quail are “fully enrolled” with hopes of additional acres becoming available with government okay. All this translates into a lot of new real estate for game birds to call Iowa home.

Having blocks of CRP next to one another will help increase populations, especially since roosters are territorial during breeding season, says Pheasants Forever Director of Agriculture and Conservation Innovation Ryan Heiniger. Recently, Pheasants Forever began partnering with Iowa farmers to help identify acres well-suited for federal and state conservation programs. They assist farmers in applying for programs and give advice on planting diverse mixes that can benefit pollinators as well. Heiniger says the quality of seed mix factors in to how well a pheasant thrives, providing not just cover but attracting bugs the birds eat.

I’m excited to see how all these programs and partnerships will impact future pheasant numbers. I hope my husband and I can teach our young son to farm and be a respectful wildlife sportsman. The future of pheasant hunting depends on those who have a passion for both. 

By Caitlyn Lamm. Caitlyn is Iowa Farm Bureau’s public relations specialist.