Despite current dry conditions, hope is in the forecast for pheasants and quail in Iowa
By Josh Divan
2020 was a pretty solid year in Iowa for upland gamebirds and the people that are passionate about pursuing them. We enjoyed another year of a stable to increasing pheasant population, hunter satisfaction was high with a harvest of over 300,000 roosters for only the second time in ten years, and the pandemic increased the number of hunting licenses sold by 10,000.
Fast forward to July of 2021 and like some of its neighboring states to the west, Iowa finds itself in the middle of a significant drought that is damaging crops and creating concern amongst bird hunters of potential negative impacts to pheasants and quail.
The Bad News
Most of Iowa is currently experiencing conditions ranging from abnormally dry to severe drought. It was the driest spring in 27 years and one of the driest Junes in state history. Crops within the drought zone have been suffering from the combination of extreme heat and a notable lack of available moisture.
In addition to the drought that initially arrived late in 2020, this last winter proved a challenge to gamebirds as well. The state received 33 inches of snow, which was well above the long-term average of 25 inches. Based on modeling by the Iowa DNR, the pheasant population rarely increases with snowfall above 31 inches.
To make matters worse, the snow cover was accompanied by several significant ice storms across parts of southern Iowa that restricted access to cover and food for pheasants and quail in those areas.
The most significant impact of this drought to hunters and their four-legged companions will likely be an increase in the amount of haying and grazing on acres enrolled in various conservation programs on private land as the USDA grants emergency haying and grazing to affected counties. This will limit some late season re-nesting opportunities for hens, reduce the amount of fall hunting habitat, and potentially leave wildlife more vulnerable to winter weather.
The Good News
Despite those challenges, there is a lot to be optimistic about for hunters who are looking forward to chasing birds in Iowa this fall!
Wildlife here is not as vulnerable to drought as it is in western states. Even under dryer conditions in Iowa, subsoil moisture is usually accessible by the deeper root systems of native species. Wildlife habitat areas that have been established to higher-quality, native mixes are still providing great cover for pheasants, quail, and their newly hatched chicks.
Iowa’s climate is also significantly different from the other states experiencing a drought in that we receive roughly double the amount of precipitation. In fact, nesting conditions typically improve when Iowa experiences drier springs.
In a recent news release, Todd Bogenschutz, the Iowa DNR Upland Wildlife Biologist, made the following statement, “Given the information, our weather model is predicting pheasant population will be unchanged to slightly higher in 2021. I expect there to be regional differences given the weather – populations might be up in northwestern Iowa, but lower in the southeastern part of the state.”
Hunters looking to plan successful trips this fall should plan to target areas with cover that is comprised of abundant, high-quality native species which are found across Iowa’s public lands, the 36,000 (more or less) acres enrolled into Iowa’s Habitat & Access Program (IHAP), and many of the hundreds of thousands of acres on private lands that are participating in conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program.
Josh Divan is a Precision Ag & Conservation Specialist for Pheasants Forever. He lives in northern Iowa