by Amanda Fanger, Reporter and Farmer
Where Day County was once a destination for pheasant hunters, it seems in recent years the majority have been only passing through, headed to counties further west and south. That equates to millions of lost revenue for the county.
The reason can be attributed to how many pheasants are in the area, which is affected by the type of habitat, or lack thereof, in the county, according to pheasant experts here.
According to Day County Game, Fish & Parks conservation officer Bob Losco and Day County Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologist Ben Lardy, everything is interlinked.
Within recent years, the number of acres that have expired from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), as well as fewer acres of pastureland and even fewer tree shelters around the county, all add up to a big effect on the number of pheasants produced here.
With fewer pheasants to hunt, hunters who once made a point of coming to Day County now look to spend their money to get where more birds are.
“We’re definitely down from even five or six years ago,” Losco said. “(In 2007) we had good pheasants and a lot of public hunting opportunities.”
Day County hit a peak in 2007 with 91,751 acres enrolled in CRP. That same year, pheasant production also peaked with over 46,000 birds harvested. Since that time, CRP enrollment dropped to 50,373 acres in 2011, and the number of pheasants harvested also dropped to 13,151 that year.
In addition, from 2008 to 2011, Day County lost an additional estimated 30,000-50,000 acres of grasslands and wetlands.
CREP alone has lost 10,000 acres in the last several years, according to Lardy.
What resulted is the $5.2 million in revenue the county pulled in during the 2007 pheasant hunting season dropped to just $3.2 million during the 2011 season.
“And it’s a similar story in counties around us,” Lardy said. “(What we’re seeing) is sportsmen bypassing our counties and heading further west. Distance is becoming less and less of a factor. Hunters are willing to drive those extra miles, spend the extra buck in fuel, just to get where the birds are. As someone in the sporting industry, that’s definitely a red flag.”
Losco, who came to Day County in 1999, says there were hardly any pheasants in the area due to the harsh winter of 1996-97. But within a few years those numbers had started to rebound. The county had perfect conditions in years following to rebuild the pheasant population, leading up to the peak hunting season in 2007, he commented.
“We had a ton of CRP – an enormous amount. There were several mild winters in a row too. There was great success,” he said.
In 2008, a lot of CRP acres in the county expired from that program and producers did not sign up again, mostly due to farm commodity prices going up and making CRP and CREP unwise financially.
The result was fewer acres of habitat for the pheasants. The birds were driven to nesting in the growth next to the lakes in the county and many were flooded out that spring.
Top that with a couple of bad winters, one right after another, and the pheasant population in Day County took a hit that hasn’t quite rebounded yet.
But harsh winters are not the only type of weather that is hard on pheasant numbers.
“In 2008-09, it looked promising, but the spring nesting was terrible,” Losco said. “We had a lot of wet and late cold snaps.”
This spring, he added, is shaping up to look a lot like that one had.
That summer, it had gotten really dry and the pheasant chicks, he explained, perished because of the lack of moisture.
“Which seems crazy because we’ve got all these lakes around here, but the thing you’ve got to understand is baby pheasant chicks’ primary source of water comes from dew,” Losco said. “The pheasant chicks that were out then just couldn’t make it…that just goes to show how much Mother Nature has an effect.”
CRP and CREP acres, as well as shelterbelts, pasture and the right kind of cover crops provide the tipe of protection for pheasants that counterbalances Mother Nature’s wrath.
Rebuilding the pheasant habitat in Day County is one of Lardy’s main focuses right now. Pheasants Forever is making a shift towards promoting working land habitat and trying to make sure cover crops like alfalfa and wheat stay in the countryside.
Lardy says there’s a lot of untapped potential out there for cover crops.
“We’re looking to production and cropland to provide habitat in ways it’s never been done before,” he said. “We still have quite a bit of diversity left (but) we’ve a long ways to go. Our big goal is, how do we make crop rotations work for both the farmer and for the wildlife? We must make the most of the remaining acres.”
Lardy says he wants to work with landowners to help them figure out what is going to pencil out best for them.
Program rates have recently increased. Whereas the base rate was roughly $85 an acre for CRP a few years ago, an average is now closer to $118 an acre. For CREP, it’s been averaging $150-190 an acre in Day County.
Lardy says he wants to work with landowners to help them figure out what is going to pencil out the best for them. He’s looking for those landowners and producers who are willing to try something new.
While Lardy says Day County producers are good about coming into his office to visit about their options, he said he’d like to go door-to-door more often to visit with people about conservation opportunities on their land.
“I’m definitely going to do the most I can to keep a pheasant population in Day County,” he said. “With the right program (and) the right attitude, nothing is to say we can’t get (the pheasant numbers) back up.”
Once spring actually hit this year, Lardy said he was surprised to see how many pheasants there actually are, but noted Day County has seen worse winters before.
“This winter was just more drug out,” he said. “The ice storms are really what gets them.”
And Losco says that because of the wet spring, “It’s setting up to not be a good year for pheasant reproduction…It can turn around yet, though.”
Losco says GF&P won’t know for sure how the winter or the spring weather has affected this year’s pheasant numbers until they do their August brood routes.
“It takes pheasants a few years to recover,” he said, but added that no matter what, “it’s not going to be like it was five or six years ago by this fall.”