Once upon a time, the opening day of the Iowa pheasant hunting season was something of an event.
Today, not so much.
Where pickups sporting dog kennels once crowded motel parking lots the night before, vacancy signs now glow brightly.
Unlike a decade ago when claiming a hunting spot on a public hunting area meant getting to the parking lot hours before, many now stand empty when legal shooting time rolls around at 8 a.m.
Truth to tell, Iowa’s pheasants — and pheasant hunting — have fallen on tough times in recent years.
There was a time when the annual Iowa ringneck harvest routinely flirted with, even exceeded, the magical one-million-bird mark, the last time in 2005.
This year, it is expected that only about 100,000 roosters will find their way to hunters’ bags during the season that continues through January 10, 2014.
By comparison, in Minnesota, once a perennial also-ran when compared to Iowa’s annual pheasant harvest levels, hunters are expected to bag more than 200,000 birds.
A perfect storm of several snowy, extended winters followed by cold, damp springs, along with rising commodity prices and dwindling wildlife habitat, particularly Conservation Reserve Program acres, have conspired to cause the Tall Corn State’s pheasant numbers to plummet.
The annual August roadside wildlife surveys conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources indicated that pheasant numbers this year declined 18 percent from 2012 levels.
And even though pheasant numbers last year finally had posted small gains after six consecutive years of declining numbers, they still were some of the lowest in four decades — hardly anything to crow about.
As the pheasants go, so go the hunters.
During the late 1990s, some 200,000 hunters hit the fields to hunt Iowa pheasants, including about 50,000 non-residents.
In recent years, fewer than 50,000 hunters pursued Iowa ringnecks. Only 8,000 traveled from out-of-state.