It's not a good time to be a pheasant in Iowa. After two long, hard winters, regular spring flooding and the Flood of 2008, the state's pheasant population is at an all-time low.
For the Aldo Leopold Chapter of Pheasants Forever, the declining pheasant population is a big concern. The group celebrated 21 years of grassroots conservation efforts during its annual banquet Saturday night at Pzazz Convention and Event Center.
Besides a dinner, the night was filled with games, raffles, prizes and a live and silent auction that featured more than 60 items, including several high-powered rifles and shotguns.
"The purpose of our organization is conservation, preserving and establishing wildlife habitats and educating youth about conservation," said Aldo Leopold chapter president Christa Perkins. "Every dollar we raise stays under local control."
More than 250 people comprised of chapter members and their families attended the banquet, which Perkins hoped would raise between $18,000 and $20,000 for the organization like it did last year.
The Aldo Leopold chapter has spent more than $100,000 on habitat restoration efforts affecting 5,000 acres in Des Moines County, and has spent more than $30,000 on conservation education programs. One of their most visible programs is the annual Youth Outdoor Jamboree, which is a collaboration between Pheasants Forever, the Des Moines County Conservation Department and several other agencies.
Despite their best efforts, the group can do little to stem the tide of Mother Nature and modern farming, so their only hope in preserving nesting spots for pheasants and quail is through Iowa's Conservation Reserve Program.
"The pheasant population is so down," said Chris Lee, DMC Conservation Natural Resource Manager and Aldo Leopold chapter member. "I hunted pretty hard this year, and I only saw eight or 10 birds."
Though it's possible for pheasant populations to quickly bounce back due to the high number of eggs they lay, there may not be enough nesting ground left for that to happen. Lee said many 10-year CRP contracts with local land owners are expiring, which means nesting sites likely will be turned back into farmland. He blamed the push for ethanol fuel, which has many farmers planting more corn. At least 80 percent of Iowa's pheasant harvest occurs on private land.
"We've lost a swatch of habitat (in Iowa) as big as an eight-mile-wide strip of grassland from Davenport to Omaha," Lee said. "A good spring would help a bunch. The Pheasants Forever chapter is going like gangbusters, pushing hard legislatively."
Habitat chairman Butch Schmeiser, who was working the raffle table Saturday night, described the situation in even bleaker terms. He said more than 50 percent of local CRP contracts will be up for expiration before 2012. Besides corn, much of the land will be used for cattle pastures.
"At one time, we were No. 1 in pheasant population. We're now No. 10 and falling," Schmeiser said. "We have 1.7 million acres of CRP land, and at one time, we had 2.5 million acres. Those were the years we were number one."
But as long as there are dedicated volunteers, there is always hope.
"The only way it's going to improve is by improving the habitat we put in the ground. Pheasants are a grassland bird, so we need acres of grassland prairie," he said.
Lee and a group of Mediapolis fifth-graders are doing what they can to create natural habitat for quail and pheasants on 18 acres in Luckenbill Woods.
The children got a crash course in quail management before helping create winter escape cover for the quail. Lee will return with the children in spring to replant the prairie with diverse vegetation, which will serve as a habitat for quail and pheasant. After three or four years, the prairie will be burned to make way for new plant life.
"We need to maintain the prairies," Lee said.
And maybe the bird population will bounce back.