With pheasant numbers down, state hopes to provide cover

Thursday, March 13, 2014
(Sentinel photo by Bennet Goldstein) Staff at Hole N' The Wall Lodge, in rural Akron, raise grain and corn for pheasants, said Joe Cain, general manager, "so they can go and forage for food without too much effort." To purchase this photo, log on to www.lemarssentinel.com.

PLYMOUTH CO. -- This year, winter had a greater effect than causing Iowans to plow their driveways or shiver from the biting frostiness.

For pheasants, higher-than-average snowfall in much of Iowa blocked access to much of their habitat, making conditions precarious.

Unlike songbirds, pheasants don't migrate, said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game bird biologist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"They can't get away from these conditions," he said.

The winter cold wasn't so much of a problem as the snow, which gave the birds fewer places to hide and escape predators -- hawks and owls, foxes, dogs, cats, and occasionally, coyotes.

Snow made it necessary for the birds to forage further from their roosting grounds.

"Now they have to go a quarter of a mile to get food," said Bogenschutz. "That just makes them more vulnerable."

Pheasants are highly visible against the snowy white ground compared to the dark landscape after a thaw.

Unfortunately, in northeast Iowa snows as early as November never melted because of cold temperatures, he said.

Less roosting spots also concentrated pheasants together during the night, which increased predation.

It didn't help pheasants that their populations were already vulnerable from a series of harsh winters since 2007, Bogenschutz said.

"It's kind of unprecedented for us to have so many winters consecutively now that the statewide average is 30 or more inches of snow," he said.

Typically, pheasant populations do not increase following winters that exceed 31 inches, Bogenschutz said.

"They are going down," he added.

In Plymouth County, the winter was not as severe this year as other parts of the state, said Joe Cain, general manager of Hole N' The Wall Lodge, in rural Akron, and habitat chairman of Plymouth County Pheasants Forever.

The lack of snow cover made it easier for the birds to forage without traveling great distances, he said.

To make conditions easier on the birds, food plots are planted for pheasants at Hole N' The Wall Lodge.

Pheasants there are able to dine on corn, sorghum, foxtail seeds -- really, any kind of wheat seed, said Cain.

"It's basically like you or I going to the grocery store," he added.

Providing the birds with winter habitat and ground cover is also important, so at Hole N' The Wall trees and shrubs are planted.

This differs from statewide trends, where potential pheasant habitat decreased about 1.7 million acres between 1990 and 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

"We're losing so much ground -- putting it back into crop ground, which obviously hampers the bird nesting area," said Cain.

These factors have contributed to declining pheasant populations throughout Iowa and in the state's northwest.

Compared to the 10-year average, pheasant populations decreased 64 percent throughout the state and 66 percent in northwest Iowa, according to the 2013 Iowa August Roadside Survey.

As a way to mitigate the loss of habitat, the USDA's Farm Service Agency has approved a new conservation program called Iowa Pheasant Recovery State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE).

With the passage of the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, there are 50,000 new acres available for landowners to enroll in 10-year contracts.

Bogenschutz said the aim of the program is to provide better winter cover for the birds along with a nearby food source.

"If these practices are implemented correctly, birds are in their winter cover, they can walk right into the food plot and then walk back right into the winter cover and never be exposed," he said. "We're trying to keep the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room right there, right in one spot for them.

"That's what's going to keep our birds alive."

Participants receive annual rent payments and other incentives.

Randy Phelan works with the Iowa DNR's private lands program in Plymouth County.

He said landowners can enroll between 20-160 acres, and the rental rate is determined by the quality of the soil.

"Whatever that size is, they have to have 25 percent of those offered acres be what we call winter cover," Phelan said.

Cover can include shrubs or straight switchgrass.

"The idea behind that is switchgrass tends to stand up better underneath the snow," he noted.

Native grasses can also be planted or preserved to provide nesting cover.

The land is left undisturbed.

"We don't have a lot of habitat out there, so anything like this is going to attract pheasants and other birds besides," Phelan said.

For landowners that don't meet the requirements, he said there are other SAFE programs they may qualify for.

Wildlife conservation depends on individual's choices, said Cain.

"As far as being a conservationist, you've got to think of the future," he said. "Sometimes people don't think that far -- their kids, their grandkids, great-grandkids. A lot of what we do nowadays is going to be a thing of the past."

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