The economic benefit of pheasant hunting in Iowa fell to $135 million in 2006 — the most recent figure available — from $200 million in 1996, and it has most likely dropped even further since. This impact was in stark relief on a recent morning at a diner in Ankeny. Amid several empty tables, Jared F. Wiklund, a regional representative for Pheasants Forever, explained that the restaurant used to be packed during pheasant season. A waitress overheard the conversation and chimed in that she had only one table on opening weekend in October. The season in Iowa ends Jan. 10.
One of the problems in Iowa, hunting advocates said, is that less than 1.5 percent of the state's land is public (where people can hunt for free), ranking near the bottom in the country. While private landowners generally do not charge people to hunt pheasants in Iowa, there are fears that could change as more landowners lease out parcels for hunting deer and other game.
Land has become so sparse in Iowa that some natives have dared to venture out of state to hunt pheasants.
"It is a hard decision," said Kent Rupiper, 49, who owns 170 acres of hunting land in Iowa but has hunted out of state. "I'd rather support the local economy if I could."
But things have changed since his childhood, he said, when "we could go anywhere and shoot our limit of birds."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, traveled to the state in October to announce the allocation of 400,000 acres nationwide — including more than 92,000 in Iowa — to specifically create habitat for species like pheasants and quail. But landowners may not begin enrolling new property in the program until Congress reaches agreement on the stalled farm bill, and that uncertainty was the biggest impediment to conservation efforts, Mr. Vilsack said.
Himself a hunter, Mr. Vilsack said the sport had a crucial place in rural American life.
"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," he said. "It's really about values."