By Tom Davis
It blew all night long. I slept upstairs in the old farmhouse, and the wind seemed to be trying to tear off the roof. Dawn broke gray and still ferociously windy, so you can understand why I was in no particular hurry to head out and see if my English cocker, Rumor, and I could get the drop on a rooster or two.
I was back in the country where I became a hunter: the Missouri River bottoms of western Iowa and the rugged Loess Hills that rise above them. Time was when I would have knocked on farmhouse doors to gain access to private land . . . but times have changed. Now, armed with maps printed from the web, my plan was to hunt a mix of state land and private land open to hunting through the Iowa Habitat & Access Program—IHAP for short.
At first blush IHAP looks like a standard-issue private-lands-access program. But IHAP works a bit differently, and the crux of the difference lies in what the “H” stands for: habitat. In the words of Iowa DNR Upland Wildlife Biologist Todd Bogenschutz: “Our biggest challenge in Iowa is keeping good habitat on the landscape.”
With this in mind, the focus of IHAP isn’t just to provide access but to create and improve habitat as well. In fact, according to Bogenschutz, participating landowners aren’t paid for providing access, per se; instead the program picks up the costs of improving the habitat—typically to the standard of a state wildlife area—and the landowner, in turn, allows access.
Often these costs otherwise would have been borne out-of-pocket by landowners whose properties are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Also, by tying IHAP into existing three- to 10-year CRP contracts, turnover is minimized, continuity of access is assured and high-quality habitat stays on the landscape.
The upshot is that when you drive to an IHAP property, you know that you’re going to find top-notch cover and not, say, a cow pasture. “It’s a win-win,” Bogenschutz said. “We’ve gotten a great response to the program from both hunters and landowners.”
About 23,000 acres currently are enrolled in the program, and while IHAP properties can be found statewide, densities are somewhat higher in the south-central part of the state and along the Missouri River. That’s where Rumor and I ended up on that windy November day—on a spectacular piece of cover that was a mosaic of shaggy tallgrass prairie and shallow wetlands. The hunting wasn’t easy, but after a long walk punctuated by a handful of wild flushes, we surprised a rooster loafing in the lee of a levee. He fell halfway up the embankment, giving me a splendid view of my little black-and-tan dog as she made her usual high-energy retrieve.
As it happened, it was my birthday. I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend it—or a greater gift than a wild Iowa rooster.