DES MOINES — Planting radishes could be the key to boosting pheasant numbers in Iowa, according to a wildlife researcher who spoke to lawmakers Thursday.

It would take more than farmers planting a winter cover crop of radishes to increase pheasant numbers to where they were 50 years ago, but it’s one of the strategies suggested by Willie Suchy of the Department of Natural Resources.

“You’d always like an easy road and abundant wildlife,” Suchy said after the discussion of turkey, pheasant and waterfowl hunting at a House Natural Resources Committee meeting.

Changing weather and changing farming practices are parts of the challenge, he said. Since 1962, pheasant numbers have fallen from about 63 per mile in the agency’s annual roadside survey to slightly more than 20 per mile.

DNR data shows the harvest has fallen from more than 1.8 million in 1962 to fewer than 200,000 birds in recent years.

“I see more bald eagles than rooster pheasants,” Rep. Robert Bacon, R-Slater, said.

Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Okoboji, wondered whether the state was “wasting money on pheasants because they’ll all end up in South Dakota anyway?”

Looking at the data, Smith said he doubted declining pheasant numbers could be blamed on bad weather every year for 50 years. Even during the 1980s when many farms were in the Conservation Reserve Program, the numbers slid.

“Are we spending resources on a problem that can’t be fixed?” he asked.

Suchy outlined the actions the DNR is taking and contemplating, including partnering with Pheasants Forever and landowners to improve habitat, encourage farmers to use best practices and plant winter cover crops that improve the soil and provide habitat for wildlife.

Radishes, for example, add nitrogen to the soil and break up the soil structure to improve water infiltration and nutrient retention, Suchy said. They would not be a market crop.

He added that South Dakotans were asking the same questions 40 years ago.

“In the 1970s, they were only harvesting about 200,000. They were having the same discussions everyone in here is having and saying there is nothing we can do.”

Today, he said, the South Dakota pheasant harvest is more than 1 million birds a year — “way above where they thought they would be.”