After a year of heightened interest around outdoor activities like hunting and fishing due to the conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, hunting statistics across multiple categories and seasons are showing slight declines in participation.
Through the month of February, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) toured the state, holding 17 town hall-style meetings where they presented hunting season summary information from 2021 and took questions and comments from the public as it prepares for the 2022 seasons .
The final meeting of the tour was held on Feb. 24 at Otter Creek Park north of Toledo. Roughly 20 members of the public were in attendance at the meeting that was facilitated by DNR Wildlife Management Biologist Steve Woodruff, and a video presentation was given featuring reports from various Iowa DNR research biologists who specialize in different wildlife areas.
Land and habitat concerns
Several commenters at the meeting noticed a decrease in available hunting land in recent years. One concern was about how aggressively agriculture land is being worked, with one attendee reporting having seen corn and beans tilled all the way into creek lines in some area fields.
One suggestion that came forward was to include the DNR in the process the Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) goes through to develop and its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays landowners rental income in exchange for environmentally sensitive sensitive acres from production.
One attendee raised a concern that even though grasses may get planted on CRP land, when the snow comes in the winter, those areas don’t have enough winter cover to hold wildlife like pheasants that hunters are seeking.
On the other side of the land equation was a concern about landowners who own large stretches of timber that can hold several deer who are restricting their land for public hunting.
Woodruff said it was a phenomenon that’s been noticed across the state recently, where the potential motivation behind sequestering such a large area of habitat could be to let larger bucks grow for trophy antlers.
Though Woodruff indicated there wasn’t much the DNR had authority to do to intervene in those scenarios, the concern raised at the meeting was about what to do if disease were to enter in those pockets of deer, potentially wiping them out.
A consistent theme throughout the hunting reports, though more in some than others, was the steady decline in habitat habitats in Iowa.
According to Iowa DNR Upland Game Biologist Todd Bogenschutz, loss of habitat is the largest concern for upland game populations including pheasants, which are among the most popular in the category. Since 1990, the statewide pheasant harvest data has followed a similar trajectory as the number of habitat available in Iowa over the same period of time.
From 1990 to 2020, the acres of pheasant habitat in Iowa decreased from over 4.5 million acres to less than three million acres.
The acres of habitat lost in Iowa from 2005 to 2020 would equal a patch of ground that was 3.5 miles wide and would stretch from Omaha to Davenport.
The pheasant population has predictably declined along the same line as their habitat has been taken away. In 1990, hunters reported over 1.2 million pheasants harvested in a single season. Thirty years later, the total has dropped to around 300,000.
The DNR has also been utilizing predator data collected by more than 2,000 bow hunters statewide over the past 10 years. When set against the pheasant data, there appears to be no consistent relationship between the rise and fall of pheasants in Iowa with predators such as coyotes, foxes and bobcats.
Although the long-term trends remain in decline, the pheasant population numbers for 2021 remained steady compared to recent years.
Pheasant counts in the west central and north central regions were the highest they had seen in a decade, while the populations in southeast dropped 60 percent. Averaged out across the state, the numbers are relatively the same as the year before. Hunters in the northern half of the state likely felt the year to be a strong year for pheasants, while hunters in the south likely felt the opposite.
The pheasant harvest, which is expected to be around 295,000, was high compared to the 10-year average of around 228,000.
Bogenschutz also pointed out the DNR’s Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) that works through funding from the USDA to provide funding and educational opportunities to landowners for allowing public access to their land for hunting.
IHAP lands, which now total roughly 40,000 acres statewide, are open for hunting from Sept. 1 through May 31 each year and a map of available opportunities is on the Iowa DNR website.
Iowa DNR Waterfowl Biologist Orrin Jones provided a report on the hunting season for birds such as geese and ducks.
Jones noted there was a severe drought this past year that affected many of the breeding areas of migratory waterfowl birds hunted in Iowa. Waterfowl hunters reported their season was relatively challenging this year despite some locations having above average population counts.
The hunting seasons for ducks and geese plan to remain roughly the same, but a few changes have been proposed to the regulations for next year. They include a three-bird daily bag limit for Canada geese beginning with the second segment of the regular season, expansion of the Des Moines Metro Goose Hunting Area and adjustments to the areas closed to Canada goose hunting.
Additionally, there will be a new process to register for the Harvest Information Program, which is a requirement for all migratory game bird hunters. Step-by-step instructions for registration can be found on the Iowa DNR website at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting/migratory-game-birds.
Iowa DNR Furbearer Biologist Vince Evelsizer provided a report on fur-bearing wildlife such as raccoons, muskrat, beaver, coyotes and badgers, typically sought for trapping. The report indicated the buying market for animal furs has remained weak, which has kept the trapping pressure low across the state.
Though populations have remained relatively stable for most of the fur-bearing wildlife species, with the exception of muskrats and the gray fox, harvest numbers have declined steadily over the past decade.
Muskrat harvest illustrates the decline most, going around from over 33,000 harvested in 2015-16 to 16,000 harvested in 2020-21.
The deer harvest for 2021 totaled 102,810, which was a decrease of around six percent from the previous year. DNR officials said it was likely due to mild weather during deer seasons.
License sales only decreased one percent this year, which was encouraging given the six percent increase in license sales the state saw last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deer population has remained steady for another year, and the harvest data indicates the state is on track with its goal of harvesting between 100,000 to 120,000 yearly.
The population, though relatively stable in recent years, is still down approximately nine percent from 2008.
Proposed changes in the deer season relate to the antlerless deer season. A January antlerless-only season is being reinstated in Allamakee, Appanoose, Decatur, Monroe, Wayne and Winneshiek counties.
Antlerless-only license quotas are also being decreased in nine counties in western Iowa to allow populations time to recover, while similar quotes are being raised in eight counties in central and south-central Iowa where populations are above goal.
For more information on the upcoming hunting season, visit the Iowa DNR website at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Hunting.