Grassland and pheasants made for each other

RINGNECK PHEASANT season in underway. It has been a long road of recovery for this species from drastically low levels of several years ago. Primary reasons for population declines have many indicators: loss of significant conservation reserve grasslands on private property, severe winters with over 30 inches of snow, followed by excessively wet springs. Those are the major factors.

The last several years weather wise have been more favorable for pheasant survival. So, given a bit of good luck, these beautiful game birds are making the best of the situation. Survey routes across Iowa last August found statistically similar numbers to 2015’s roadside counts. Hen pheasants have always been illegal to take. And from a biological point of view, one rooster per 10 or 12 hens will be enough to have active nests next Spring. An overall harvest of over 250,000 roosters state-wide is on the low side estimate. If more hunters gave this season a bit more effort, The harvest could sustain 500,000 and still have a viable population for 2017.

It is not an easy task for game birds to find places to call home. The reality of Iowa is that we have lots of corn or soybeans. Long gone are the typical small farms of the 1930s 40s, 50s and 60s. In those settings there were many brushy and weedy fencerows, small grains, pastures for smaller livestock operations, and more grasslands to supply forage for cattle. The conditions that allowed pheasants to thrive back then have been severely modified over time.

Our neighboring state to the north, Minnesota, introduced the ringneck pheasant to central and southwest portions land in 1916. The first pheasant season opened in 1924 with 300 roosters being taken by hunters. By 1931, the population had mushroomed under optimal conditions. The 1931 season had a harvest of over 1 million! In 1941, the take was estimated at 1.8 million. Iowa’s ringneck history tells a parallel story. Stocking attempts were made as early as 1884 with birds from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. An Iowan near Cedar Falls in the early 1900s had his pen nets ripped by a violent wind storm causing the accidental release of over 2,000 pheasants. Conservation department officials in 1910 were encouraging landowners to acquire eggs. Six thousand eggs were handed out in 82 counties where the birds were later released into the wild.

In case you think the pheasant egg program was success, it wasn’t. Conservation folks at that time changed course a bit, and started their own hatchery in 1913-14. Ten thousand birds were released all over the state in 1915. Also at the time, it was thought that southern Iowa habitat would be ideal for pheasants. They were wrong. Pheasants in northwest and north central Iowa did much better from 1920- to 1940. This early success was undoubtedly due to the abundance of grassy habitats (tame and native hay, oats, flax, and prairie pothole wetlands interspersed with weedy crop fields.

More egg production and stocking took place into the mid 1930’s when a policy change determined that the old policy was not working. The game farm was shut down in 1932, then re-established in 1938. Favorable winter weather allowed bird populations to grow. The game farm stayed in operation until the late 1970s. It had become abundantly clear that pen raised birds were not contributing to wild bird numbers. Now the pheasant program switched gears to trap wild birds and release them into other portions of Iowa. This was an improvement in technique. Biologists were duly noting that emphasis on habitat suitable for pheasants is key to any recovery program.

Many factors were conspiring against the pheasant as time went on. It was a slow and inevitable process whereby habitat changed, and the sciences were providing new and better tools for agricultural production. Small farms got larger and larger. Fence rows disappeared. Weedy and brushy fencerows disappeared. Volunteer weeds in farm fields disappeared.

To complete the picture a bit more, population declines were noted after severe winter weather of 1964-65, 1966-67, 1978-79, 1981-82, 2000-01 and 2007-11. Between these bad years there was a mild recovery only to be hit again by the next bad winter weather cycle. The trend line for ringnecks was a downward sloping line on the graph.

Will Iowa ever be a pheasant stronghold like it was 60 or 70 years ago? No. Too much has changed to our landscape to allow that to happen. A glimpse of surrounding states that do have large grasslands in place is where pheasant strongholds exist now. North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana rank their bird populations as very good. The soils in some of these states may not be suitable for dry land agriculture. Growing grass and feeding it to cattle is how these lands are productive. Pheasants can deal with these circumstances.

Back here in Iowa, the first pheasant season was three days, October 20, 21 and 22nd of the year 1925. And only a portion of Iowa was open namely Kossuth, Humboldt, Winnebago, Hancock, Cerro Gordo, Franklin, Mitchell, Floyd, Butler, Grundy, Black Hawk and Bremer counties. Hours were from 30 minutes before sunrise until noon. Complaints about crop depredation spurred on the call for an open season back then. In hindsight, facts about crop losses were based on conjecture rather than real science.So political wheels got greased and that is how this chapter ended.

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The MARIETTA SAND PRAIRIE helps to fill a void in grassland habitat. It has 229 acres of mostly upland native grasses and forbs. There is a mixture of aspen in wet potions of the land, and cottonwoods in the draws and drainages of the eastern portion of the tract. The original 17-acre purchase of the Sand Prairie was in 1983. It was dedicated as a state preserve in 1984 due to well documented botanical and biological survey data was obtained. A 212-acre addition two decades later was made possible by a joint operation of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Martha-Ellen Tye Foundation, Pheasants Forever, REAP, Iowa Prairie Network and the Marshall County Conservation Board.

Some of the major plant types found growing at this site include little and big bluestem, Indian grass, reedgrass, Junegrass, tall dropseed, and needlegrass. Forbs (flowers) include partridge pea, sage, dotted mint, blazing star, birdfoot violet, Missouri goldenrod and savory leaf aster. These names are just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the completed inventory list of species. Across most of Marshall County, picking the time of settlement of the mid 1850’s, prairie grasslands were about 83 percent of what our pioneer forefathers witnessed. Forests covered another 15 percent and 2 percent was water in the Iowa River, its tributaries and upland wetland depressions left over from long ago ice age sculpting forces.

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PHEASANTS FOREVER is hosting their fundraising banquet on Nov. 5. The place is at Marshall County’s Central Iowa Fairgrounds activity building. Doors open at 5 p.m. for games, raffles, dinner and live auction. Private conservation organizations help educate the public about upland game bird habitat requirements. To that end, funds raised are available locally if needed to assist with long term habitat projects or land development. It is a good cause. Tickets can be secured from Steve Armstrong (641-751-1668) or John Fox (641-751-4487).

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.