Newsroom Midwest Region

Students enjoy first mentored pheasant hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

December 13, 2017

First-time hunter Jessica Wilming and Rue the bird dog prepare for the mentored hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Patrick Bryant/USFWS.
First-time hunter Jessica Wilming and Rue the bird dog prepare for the mentored hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Patrick Bryant/USFWS.

Jessica Wilming is a sophomore studying Dietetics at Iowa State University (ISU). Her life revolves around classes and work, but recently Jessica has been focused on hunting. Things changed when fellow classmate and ISU Pheasants Forever Chapter President Alison Fenske offered to guide her on a pheasant hunt. On December 9th, Jessica, along with 18 other ISU students, participated in the first mentored pheasant hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. She was one of ten first-time hunters paired with experienced peer mentors.

Refuge Manager Scott Gilje first proposed the hunt idea in November during the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s Recruit, Retrain, and Reactivate (R3) Summit. The R3 Summit addressed the challenges natural resource organizations face in engaging outdoor recreation participants. Inspired by the Summit’s emphasis on collaboration, Scott shared his hunt idea with Iowa Pheasants Forever Coordinator Jamie Cook.

Scott saw the refuge’s 5,600 acres of tallgrass prairie offering ideal habitat for pheasants. And located only 20 minutes east of the Des Moines area, the land was easily accessible. Jamie’s Pheasants Forever members jumped at the opportunity to hunt the refuge, and best of all, hunters of all levels could benefit from the experience.

“This is bigger than one hunt,” said Jamie. “We can use this event as an entryway for new hunters to continue learning, and experienced hunters to keep participating.”

As Scott and Jamie planned the event, the mentored hunt became a coordinated collaboration between natural resource organizations including the Iowa DNR, Pheasants Forever and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). By creating a “skills seminar” with the DNR prior to the hunt, Jamie was confident the hunt could be enjoyed by all experience levels. And Jamie knew the perfect place to look for diverse participants: Iowa State University Pheasants Forever. Chapter President Alison quickly found experienced and new hunters interested in attending.

The evening before the scheduled hunt, students met at DNR-managed Olofson Shooting Range, which was recently renovated with funds from a Service grant. Range Manager A Jay Winter kicked off the skills seminar, demonstrating firearm safety and guiding participants through trap shooting. Following a group dinner, Iowa DNR Upland Wildlife Biologist Todd Bogenschutz presented an overview of pheasant behavior and habitat preferences. With the knowledge and experience gained through the evening, everyone was ready to hunt.

The following morning, A Jay, Jamie and Scott met with students at the refuge’s Prairie Learning Center, mapping out areas with the most pheasant activity. Splitting into groups of mentors and mentees, they chose three different units of the refuge to hunt. Each group was accompanied by a dog to help flush birds. These bird dogs were brought in by Chris Riddle, a longtime supporter of the ISU Pheasants Forever Chapter and owner of R6 Upland Kennels.

Despite cold conditions and wind, the students successfully harvested one rooster. After celebrating the morning hunt over lunch, students were excited to tour the visitor center and see the refuge’s resident bison herd. Alison and mentee Jessica were pleased with the experience, and expressed a desire to see future hunting opportunities.

“We hope this will be an annual thing,” said Alison. “Our generation is the key to Iowa’s hunting heritage, and this was a good chance to get people out [hunting] who wouldn’t normally go.”

Following the hunt, participants joined a messaging group to stay updated about future hunting opportunities and resources. Scott and Jamie plan to continue communicating with the students, and look forward to welcoming them back next year.

18 ISU students participated in the first mentored pheasant hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Patrick Bryant/USFWS.
18 students participated in the first mentored pheasant hunt at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Patrick Bryant/USFWS.