ELKHART, Iowa — Mike Wilson glared dejectedly through the mist on his silver-frame glasses at the soggy field of tall, dense brush, tilting the barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun toward the gray clouds.
“All I want to do,” he said, “is see a bird at this point.”
More than two hours into this pheasant hunt, the colorful rooster that one of Wilson’s hunting partners had shot that morning was now a distant memory. Only one other pheasant had graced the skies since, and it was too far off to even try a shot.
The pheasant, once king of Iowa’s nearly half-billion- dollar hunting industry, is vanishing from the state. Surveys show that the population in 2012 was the second lowest on record, 81 percent below the average over the past four decades.
The loss, pheasant hunters say, is both economic and cultural. It stems from several years of excessively damp weather and animal predators.
But the factor inciting the most emotion is the loss of wildlife habitat as landowners increasingly chop down their brushy fields to plant crops to take advantage of rising commodity prices and farmland values.
Over the last two decades, Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat suitable for pheasants and other small game, the equivalent of a 9-mile-wide strip of land stretching practically the width of the state. And these declines have been occurring nationwide.
The overall amount of land enrolled in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program has dipped to 29.5 million acres this year from a peak of 36.7 million in 2007. Under the program, the government pays owners a certain rate to plant parts of their land with grass and other vegetation that create a wildlife habitat.
Land in the program is most suitable for pheasants and other upland game, and owners often make it available for hunting. But as the price of corn and other crops has risen, so have land values, and the rates paid by the government under the program have been unable to keep up.
Each of the top seven pheasant hunting states have seen sizable reductions in the number of pheasants shot and the number of pheasant hunters over the last five years, according to data provided by Pheasants Forever, a group advocating for the expansion of wildlife habitat and land for public hunting. Last year, there were more than 1.4 million pheasant hunters nationally, a drop of about 800,000 in two decades.
“We’re at a tipping point, and we have to decide how important it is to keep traditions for upland bird hunting alive and into the future,” said David Nomsen, the vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever.
Federal wildlife officials say the money that sportsmen and women pump into the local communities is vital. More than $33.7 billion was spent on hunting in 2011, including $2.5 billion on small game, which includes pheasants.
“In these times of fiscal restraint, when budgets are being slashed, we need to do all we can to make sure hunting and fishing remain viable pastimes,” Daniel Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email.
In Iowa, the issue essentially has pitted the interests of the state’s recreational industry against its biggest economic driver, farming.
Among farmers, “it’s being passed down, from generation to generation, ‘How much can you get out of this land?’” said Wilson, the pheasant hunter, a 49-year-old former naval officer who hunts about three times a week. “‘Yes, you’ve got to take care of it — blah, blah, blah — but how much can you make for your family out of this piece of land?’ It’s not about ‘Is little Billy going to grow up to be a hunter?’ anymore.”
Bruce Rohwer, the president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said he believed that farmers were as concerned as ever about being good stewards of the land and allowing natural habitats to bloom where they would prevent soil erosion and water contamination. But farmers also have to contend with economic realities, he said.
“As much as some people have romantic ideas that farming is just something that happens,” he said, “it is the way in which we make a living, so you have to consider all factors.”
REDMOND From the moment many of Barbara Thomas' closest family and friends heard she had been murdered, they say one name instantly came to mind. ”We all immediately assumed Adam had killed his mother,” said Karen Davis, a distant cousin and one of Thomas' closest friends. In a case that has shocked normally tranquil Redmond and defies easy explanation, the 52-year-old Thomas was found…
The holiest plant of the Christmas season may be a raggedy shrub with peeling bark that seems to grow best in a dusty backyard in Tempe, Ariz. This is Boswellia sacra, better known as the frankincense tree. The shrub’s gum resin is one of the three biblical gifts that the wise men bestowed on the infant Jesus. Until recently, Americans who wished to cultivate their…
PRINEVILLE - After years of speculation about the future of Les Schwab Tire Centers in Prineville, the company officially informed city and Crook County representatives Tuesday that it will move its corporate headquarters to Bend. In the wake of the announcement, local government officials said they are disappointed and worried about the possible economic impact - but things could be worse. ”I was glad to…
FRESNO, Calif. — Federal law now allows visitors to carry guns in national parks, but you can’t just slip a loaded pistol into your backpack and take a hike. Pay attention, because this is a little complicated. You will need a concealed weapons permit to carry the loaded gun in the backpack. But you don’t need any kind of permit if you just want to…
A man was killed at the Interfor Pacific Mill in Gilchrist in an industrial accident on Thursday morning, according to a press release from the Oregon State Police. George Ray Green, 50, a La Pine resident and a log truck driver, died after he was crushed by a front-end loader as he was attempting to remove the wrappers from his load of logs, according to…