There were fewer pheasants in the field this past hunting season, according to a report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and fewer pheasant hunters as well. Weather over the past five years – winters of heavy snowfall followed by wet nesting seasons – is cited as the primary cause of falling numbers of pheasants in Iowa, Minnesota and North and South Dakota.
Whether or not these events of unusual precipitation can be blamed on it, climate change could be hammering pheasants with a double whammy: Inclement weather is coupled with the stress of increasing habitat loss as Midwestern farmers convert brushy margins of their fields to grow corn for biofuels. The amount of land in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program has declined by more than seven million acres, or by nearly 20 percent of its peak enrollment in 2007.
For farmers it is often a question of economics. Rising crop prices and land values outstrip the financial incentive the government offers to create wildlife habitat. But the dwindling number of hunters has its own economic impact on local economies; in Iowa, pheasant hunters spent 70 percent less in 2010 than they did in 1997, a decline felt by many, including the small-town hotels, cafes and shops that out-of-state hunters tend to patronize.
Other people cite the decline of hunting as a loss of an American tradition. An article in the New York Times quoted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as saying, “Oftentimes what happens in a hunt, stories are told, people relax, you see your father or your grandfather or your son or your daughter in a different light… It’s really about values.”