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PERSIA, Iowa - A few weeks ago, Terry Plummer noticed that just around sunset, the trees in his yard were filling with monarchs that had stopped for the night on their 2,000 mile annual migration to central Mexico. Plummer, who spent his life farming in Harrison County, didn’t recall that happening before.
Plummer, from rural Persia, has been noticing more unusual things recently, thanks, in part, to the nearly 400 acres of prairie he installed on two of his farm fields in 2017, when he signed up for the Iowa Habitat and Access Program.
The two year old prairie has been a discussion topic with his neighbors, as has the increased sightings of pheasants along the road. And it’s not just the neighbors who’ve noticed, hunters have as well.
“It’s turned out better than I’ve imagined, so far,” Plummer said.
Acre after acre, field after field, mile after mile, young prairies in Harrison County are coming in to their own. These prairies, seeded with a mix of native plants to benefit pollinators, wetland and upland species, have grown out of difficult to farm fields that are enrolled in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Four years ago, funding became available through the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which is part of the federal Farm Bill, to improve habitat on private land in exchange for allowing hunting access and in a short time, more than 4,900 acres of private land on 26 sites was opened to hunters.
“The landowners made the decision to enroll in CRP. We approached them and said the program will help fund the habitat improvements and we will do all the maintenance from mowing to tree removal to burning. All you need to do is allow hunter access,” said Brian Hickman, private lands program coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Needless to say, it was well received.”
A number of fields adjoin each other, creating miles of connected habitat that benefits wildlife and can support lots of hunters. Habitat work began with winter-seeding in 2016 and 2017. These fields are starting to mature and on this gray October day, their value to wildlife and hunters was evident.
Two northern harriers were flying low over the prairie looking for a meal as they migrate south. Pheasants, shaking off the morning mist, fled the roadside to the safety of taller vegetation along a prairie edge. Ducks dodged early morning hunters and deer were loafing at the opposite end of a field.
The Iowa DNR has been monitoring these IHAP areas for pheasants collecting anecdotal information on the local population since the project began. Based on the survey, pheasant numbers have increased 200 percent, from 7 in 2016, to 13 in last year, to 21 this year.
“I expect good pheasant hunting on these areas,” Hickman said. “I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t.”
Partnerships key to success
Staff with USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service worked with Hickman to identify and make contact with landowners interested in the program.
Hickman, who at the time was working at the local private lands biologist for the Iowa DNR in western Iowa, met with the landowners and signed agreements to manage their land for 9 or 10 years, which is the maximum length of the contract. The land remains privately owned and hunters are allowed access for the length of the contract. There was more demand for the program than funding available.
Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP)
Iowa was selected as a pilot state in 2011 and from its inception the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP) has drawn strong landowner interest securing all available funding and providing hunter access to more than 25,700 acres of private land.
The program is also popular with hunters who have focused much of their efforts on these orange-signed areas. Each site has a survey box to collect comments from hunters.
Based on survey responses, hunters are traveling 76 miles and spending an average of $70 per trip to hunt IHAP sites. And most of them enjoyed it – 76 percent had a positive experience and 99 percent said they would hunt an IHAP site again. Pheasants were the most hunted species.
These areas are regularly patrolled by Iowa DNR conservation officers and are treated like public hunting ground, with the noted exception that it is private property, and trapping and fishing on the area is not allowed.
“This program is only available because landowners were willing to participate in it. Hunters should respect private property, stay on the land enrolled in the program and pick up after themselves,” Hickman said.
Site maps are available at www.iowadnr.gov/ihap showing boundaries, which species would be most likely attracted to the habitat and the location of a checkout box where hunters are asked to leave their comments on the program.
Walk-in public hunting through IHAP is available between September 1 and May 31. The IHAP is supported with money from Federal Farm Bill and Habitat Stamp.