For the first time in seven years, the annual August roadside count shows an increase in the state’s pheasant population, which has been driven steadily downward by bad weather and lost habitat.
This year’s statewide index — 7.9 pheasants per 30-mile route — is up about 16 percent from last year’s record low index of 6.6.
“It’s movement in the right direction. I expected an increase but was hoping for a larger one,” said Todd Bogenschutz, upland game biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.
Bogenschutz had earlier projected an increase of about 40 percent based on the average increase that occurred in seven previous years with similar, nearly ideal winter carry-over and spring nesting conditions.
Pheasants may have been somewhat undercounted this year, he said, because heavy dews, which produce the best counting conditions, were less prevalent in this summer of widespread drought.
Based on the roadside index, which has been a reliable indicator of harvest success during the following hunting season, Bogenschutz said he expects Iowa’s harvest to be between 125,000 and 200,000 roosters.
Even the low end of that range would compare favorably with last year’s record low harvest of 109,000 roosters.
About 60,000 people hunted pheasants in Iowa two years ago. Last year that number dropped to 46,000, and Bogenschutz said he expects a similar number to participate in this year’s season, which opens Oct. 27.
Iowa hunters harvested an average of 1.5 million birds per year in the 1960s and 1970s, when roadside indexes averaged in the mid-50s.
The roadside counts indicate increases in Iowa’s quail and partridge populations, but they also indicate a record low population of cottontail rabbits, whose statewide index fell 9 percent to two rabbits per 30-mile route.
Of nine regions, northeast Iowa had the lowest pheasant index — 1.4 birds per route, up from 1.1 a year earlier. Three regions had indexes in double figures — the northwest, at 16.2 birds per route, up from 10.3; the central, 13 birds per route, up from 11.6; and the north-central, 10.9 birds per route, up from 8.1.
Parts of four counties in northwest Iowa were rated good for pheasants. Parts of 22 counties, mostly in northwest and north-central Iowa, were rated fair for pheasants. The rest of the state was rated poor.