The Sub-Title of this article is How Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources is Helping to Destroy upland Game-Bird hunting!
In my never to be to humble opinion, recent times have brought an unfortunate paradox to the Game-Bird hunter : More quality bird dogs, but fewer game-birds. The best way to describe the paradox as unfortunate is to use an analogy. Having an excellent Bird-Dog in your kennel these days, is like having a Ferrari in your garage and nowhere to drive it.
Why is having an excellent Bird-Dog like having a Ferrari and nowhere to drive it? I will get into that later in the article. First I want to discuss the abundance of quality Bird-Dogs.
It is my belief that based on the test results published in the NAVHDA monthly magazine, Versatile Hunting Dog,( http://www.navhda.org/resources/vhd-magazine) that there is a massive number of quality pointing dogs being breed in recent years.
Before the reader discounts my claim based on test results, lets take a look at the criteria for passing the Utility Test at the top-level. The top-level is a Prize 1 qualifying score. The dog must perform on land and in water. The minimum score for a Prize 1 is 172 points of a possible 204 points.
The water part of the test consists of a duck search, where the dog searches on its own initiative for the duck. Also an off lead heel to a duck blind. Then the dog is to remain out of sight of the handler as two shots are fired. Then wait quietly for the handler to return. Then the real test of the dogs steadiness is next. Four separate shots and a duck thrown into the water in view of the dog. The dog must wait quietly for the command to retrieve. Next the retrieve must be done through decoys and back to the handler. The dog must sit and hold the duck calmly.
All this must be done in front of an audience. And that is just a part of the test criteria. If you would click on the link http://www.navhda.org/sites/www.navhda.org/files/assets/testrule-2-2014.pdf you can look at the complete test package. It’s easy to read, but a lot harder to accomplish. Despite the difficulty of the test, hundreds of dogs pass the Utility Test each year. There are a many more dogs who could pass the test if the owner was committed and able to put the training time in.
Even if you reject the argument that there is an ever-increasing population of quality Bird-dogs, there is no doubt that Game bird populations have fallen dramatically in most states. In Iowa where I live, peasant and quail populations, have decreased year after year since 2008. In 1962 the pheasant harvest in Iowa was around 2,000,000 birds. In 2012 the pheasant harvest was pegged at 125,000. In 1969, in Iowa the quail harvest peaked at 1,200,000 birds. Today the quail harvest is so low that it shows as zero on DNR charts.
The link directly above, links to the complete Iowa upland game bird report published in 2010. It gives a detailed account of the decline of our Game-Birds in Iowa.
Even in South Dakota the Pheasant harvest has fallen from 3,000,000 in 1962 to 1,428,00 in 2012. Prairie Grouse harvest numbers peaked in 1975 at 175,000. In 2012 the harvest came in at 50,000. I couldn’t find any concrete numbers for Kansas harvest numbers but the Kansas Department of Wildlife, website indicates their numbers are down 35 to 40 percent due to drought conditions.
All three of the states mentioned, blame weather conditions as the major reason for the decline in Game-Bird populations. They claim removal of thousands of acres from the Conservation Reserve Program as a secondary cause according to the DNR web sites.
I believe current methods of large-scale corn and soybean farming in Iowa has had a huge impact on our Game-Bird populations. Game-Bird populations were at their peak when farms were smaller. Farmers once had a lot of weedy fence rows and buffer areas. They raised small grains that were food sources for the birds. Today’s grain farmer works to maximize his tillable acreage. Which means hardly a scrap of habitat for any wildlife for miles in some areas. In South Dakota areas where farming mimics Iowa farming, the pheasant population has suffered the most. In South Dakota where farming is a mixture of crops in the same field, especially where small grains are part of the mix, pheasants are still doing very well.
Common sense would seem to say that weather will affect bird populations the most, when they are vulnerable due to deteriorating habitat conditions. The great impact winter weather has on bird populations is due to the FACT that the birds can not find food! Grain harvesting equipment is so efficient today that hardly any corn or soybeans are left on the ground. Hardly any farmers raise small grains these days. In addition most farmers fall till. This means that if there were any grain left to be eaten, it is plowed under.
Iowa’s A Review of Iowa’s Upland Game Bird Populations, declares habitat restoration is the number one priority in rebuilding the numbers is Iowa. I noticed that the study did not offer any criticism of current farming methods. Considering that farming added an estimated 72 billion to Iowa’s economy in 2009, its little wonder a state sponsored study refrained from criticism.
Habitat restoration is all well and good, but Iowa DNR mismanagement of public lands offsets any gain in habitat restoration. It does little good to add habitat acres to public lands, when there is little to no effort, to provide a supply of food so the hens came successfully over-winter. Some DNR managers do provide some food plots, but the majority of public land tracts have no food source.
I have spoken with our local DNR agents and have found them to be totally non-receptive to improving the situation. I suspect it is the same in most DNR local management offices. Not sure why the DNR does or doesn’t do certain things. I just know upland game hunting is in a serious decline. And the Iowa DNR doesn’t seem interested in doing anything about it. However, they sure bend over backwards for the Dove hunters in our area.
What is a person who loves to hunt his pointer to do? Fortunately for those who can afford it there are plenty of pay- to- hunt choices available. Another option is to buy game-birds direct from a game-bird producer. (As long as you tag the birds with official state tags.) Or you can travel to South Dakota or Kansas where birds are still relatively plentiful. Also there are several organizations in the U.S. who offer different types of field trials, and hunt competitions.
Personally I think wild bird hunting is the only real kind of hunting there is. But one has to make the best of a bad situation, (low game bird-bird populations) if we are going to be able to enjoy the plenitude of quality Bird-Dogs available.
Pro-log: I recently attended a NAVHDA Natural Ability Test with My girl Doree. The test only reinforced the fact that there are a lot of quality pointing dogs around . Eight young dogs and only one had a bad day.