DNR Researchers Say There's No Quick Fix for Declining Iowa Pheasant Numbers

By James Lynch, Reporter

DES MOINES, Iowa – Planting radishes could be the key to boosting pheasant numbers in Iowa, according to a wildlife researcher who spoke to lawmakers Thursday.

It likely will take more than farmers planting a winter cover crop of radishes to increase pheasant numbers to where they were 50 years ago, but it's one of the strategies Willie Suchy of the Department of Natural Resources suggested.

"You'd always like an easy road and abundant wildlife," Suchy said after a discussion of turkey, pheasant, and waterfowl hunting at a House Natural Resources Committee meeting March 21.

Changing weather and changing farming practices are parts of the challenge, he said. Pheasant numbers have fallen from about 63 per mile in the DNR's annual roadside survey to slightly more than 20 per mile since 1962.

That year, DNR data shows the harvest has fallen from more than 1.8 million to fewer than 200,000 birds in recent years.

"I see more bald eagles than rooster pheasants," Rep. Robert Bacon, R-Slater, said.

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Okoboji, wondered if the state was "wasting money on pheasants because they'll all end up in South Dakota anyway?"

Looking at Suchy's data, Smith said he doubted declining pheasant numbers could be blamed on bad weather every year for 50 years. Even during the 1980s when many farms were in the Conservation Reserve Program, the numbers slid.

"Are we spending resources on a problem that can't be fixed?" he wondered later.

Suchy outline a variety of actions the DNR is taking and contemplating including partnering with Pheasants Forever and landowners to improve habitat, encourage farmers to use best practices and plant winter cover crops that improves the soil and provide habitat for wildlife.

Radishes, for example, add nitrogen to the soil and break up the soil structure to improve water infiltration and nutrient retention, Suchy said. They would not be a market crop.

And, he added, South Dakotans were asking the same questions in the 1970s Smith and others were asking Thursday.

"They would have told you how pheasants were done there," Suchy said. "In the 1970s, they were only harvesting about 200,000. They were having the same discussions everyone in here is having and saying there is nothing we can do."

Today, he said, the South Dakota pheasant harvest in more than 1 million birds a year – "Way above where they thought they would be."
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