ELKHART, Iowa — Mike Wilson glared dejectedly through the mist on his silver-frame glasses at the soggy field of tall, dense brush, tilting the barrel of his 12-gauge shotgun toward the gray clouds.
“All I want to do," he said, “is see a bird at this point."
More than two hours into this pheasant hunt, the colorful rooster that one of Wilson’s hunting partners had shot that morning was now a distant memory. Only one other pheasant had graced the skies since, and it was too far off to even try a shot.
The pheasant, once king of Iowa’s nearly half-billion- dollar hunting industry, is vanishing from the state. Surveys show that the population in 2012 was the second lowest on record, 81 percent below the average over the past four decades.
The loss, pheasant hunters say, is both economic and cultural. It stems from several years of excessively damp weather and animal predators.
But the factor inciting the most emotion is the loss of wildlife habitat as landowners increasingly chop down their brushy fields to plant crops to take advantage of rising commodity prices and farmland values.
Over the last two decades, Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat suitable for pheasants and other small game, the equivalent of a 9-mile-wide strip of land stretching practically the width of the state. And these declines have been occurring nationwide.
The overall amount of land enrolled in the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program has dipped to 29.5 million acres this year from a peak of 36.7 million in 2007. Under the program, the government pays owners a certain rate to plant parts of their land with grass and other vegetation that create a wildlife habitat.
Land in the program is most suitable for pheasants and other upland game, and owners often make it available for hunting. But as the price of corn and other crops has risen, so have land values, and the rates paid by the government under the program have been unable to keep up.
Each of the top seven pheasant hunting states have seen sizable reductions in the number of pheasants shot and the number of pheasant hunters over the last five years, according to data provided by Pheasants Forever, a group advocating for the expansion of wildlife habitat and land for public hunting. Last year, there were more than 1.4 million pheasant hunters nationally, a drop of about 800,000 in two decades.
“We’re at a tipping point, and we have to decide how important it is to keep traditions for upland bird hunting alive and into the future," said David Nomsen, the vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever.
Federal wildlife officials say the money that sportsmen and women pump into the local communities is vital. More than $33.7 billion was spent on hunting in 2011, including $2.5 billion on small game, which includes pheasants.
“In these times of fiscal restraint, when budgets are being slashed, we need to do all we can to make sure hunting and fishing remain viable pastimes," Daniel Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email.
In Iowa, the issue essentially has pitted the interests of the state’s recreational industry against its biggest economic driver, farming.
Among farmers, “it’s being passed down, from generation to generation, ‘How much can you get out of this land?’" said Wilson, the pheasant hunter, a 49-year-old former naval officer who hunts about three times a week. “‘Yes, you’ve got to take care of it — blah, blah, blah — but how much can you make for your family out of this piece of land?’ It’s not about ‘Is little Billy going to grow up to be a hunter?’ anymore."
Bruce Rohwer, the president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, said he believed that farmers were as concerned as ever about being good stewards of the land and allowing natural habitats to bloom where they would prevent soil erosion and water contamination. But farmers also have to contend with economic realities, he said.
“As much as some people have romantic ideas that farming is just something that happens," he said, “it is the way in which we make a living, so you have to consider all factors."