Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, lately key architect and strategist of the federal government shutdown, and champion of slashing spending of all kinds, had the good fortune to spend the opening day of Iowa’s 2013 pheasant hunting season at a premier western Iowa hunting lodge, whose best acres are conserved with a big assist from federal Farm Bill conservation programs.
Photos indicate that the senator’s hunt was successful. Good for him. Amidst the smiles and photographs, Cruz might have left the lodge thinking 2013 is a great time to be an American sportsman. But across the rest of the state, pheasant hunters are dealing with a far different reality – and much less shooting.
When birds and hunters were plentiful, permission to hunt was often as simple as knocking on a landowner’s door. On the best of the good old days, hunters could limit out on pheasant roosters faster than they might want to, jumping eight to 10 coveys of bobwhite quail in the process, a good harbinger of upland wildlife habitat health.
These days, you’d be lucky to move one covey.
The decline in pheasants and in pheasant hunting in Iowa has been alarmingly precipitous. Every August, in the humid Iowa summer, Department of Natural Resource biologists set out on what they call “roadside population surveys,” salt-of-the-earth wildlife professionals driving around in 30-mile segments counting the pheasants they see along the side of the road. The state has been using this method to collect population estimates for pheasants for half a century, and these windshield counts are amazingly accurate. Across the state, biologists log 6,000 miles in search of birds.
In 1995, the roadside count averaged about 45 bird sightings per 30 miles of driving. That year hunters harvested 1.4 million pheasant roosters. It would have been one of those years, like so many before it, when blaze orange filled the fields, the hotels, and the restaurants of the region, supporting a powerful rural economic engine.
But the same roadside surveys conducted in 2010 produced an average of 11 birds per 30 miles, and the harvest was just 238,000 that year, a record low at the time. The most recent surveys, conducted in August of 2013, turned up an alarming 6.5 birds per 30 miles; this year’s harvest might not even top 100,000 birds.
Of course, as the birds go, so go the hunters. In 1997, 200,000 hunters chased pheasants in Iowa. By 2010, that number fell to about 60,000 hunters. As pheasants have become rarer, landowners have become less likely to grant hunters access to their land; to counter this, some hunters have begun to offer money for hunting rights, something that could fundamentally alter the hunting landscape.
The Conservation Reserve Program in the Farm Bill serves as the bulwark for upland bird habitat. CRP is a voluntary program that’s been in place since 1985. Farmers once enrolled in CRP in droves as a way to ensure that that their agriculturally unproductive acres would generate some annual income. But in the last decade or so, as crop prices have skyrocketed, no acre is deemed unworthy for planting. Farmers have understandably responded to the commodity market, taking acres out of CRP as quickly as they once enrolled them. In some cases, the CRP payment a landowner might expect is only half what that same landowner could receive for renting the land for farming; as a result, between 2003 and 2012, Iowa has lost 1200 square miles of pheasant habitat. Nationally, CRP enrollment has fallen to levels unseen since the 1980s, when the program was just ramping up; we are seeing the steep downward trend of a 25-year enrollment bell curve.
As the federal investment in these essential private lands has evaporated, bird populations have dwindled. In Iowa, the loss of CRP acreage has pushed pheasants onto shrinking parcels of quality habitat. To access that habitat, hunters should pack their wallets. Hunters still can experience the good old days of traditional pheasant hunting success by visiting one of the state’s many hunting lodges, but these hunts are expensive. For the hunter who can afford the experience, the ease of filling the game vest may be deceptive.
Enter Sen. Cruz, who would do well to remember that those acres he hunted last weekend, while privately owned, have been conserved with the support of federal taxpayer dollars – exactly the same dollars he seeks to cut. Cruz should join sportsmen-conservationists to make sure that the opportunity to enjoy productive hunts isn’t just the purview of the fortunate few but remains broadly accessible to all sportsmen and women. He can help ensure this by joining lodge owners, guides and countless American hunters in supporting CRP in the Farm Bill.
The hotels and restaurants in many rural communities are empty these days come pheasant season. But if history is any indication, if the birds come back, the hunters will, too.