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Pennsylvania Game Commission trying to bring back pheasants

| Sunday, May 15, 2011

Rocco Ali is a dinosaur with a furry sidekick.

Not age-wise. He's an active 62-year-old who hunts and fishes, lobbies for conservation causes and works with his Brittany Spaniel, Chance.

In an era when deer and turkeys dominate the outdoor scene, Ali also is a pheasant hunter, one who can remember when Pennsylvania was home to ringnecks so plentiful they filled his Saturdays with dog work, clouds of flushing birds and barrages of shooting.

"(If) you went to a place with good habitat, like the southeast corner of the state, and you planned to hunt for more than one day, you took five boxes of shells," said Ali of North Apollo. "You knew you were going to get to pull the trigger."

Those days are gone.

Pennsylvania hasn't had significant numbers of wild pheasants since Ronald Reagan was president, and stocked birds are scarcer than at any time in the past 25 years. The results have been predictable: The number of pheasant hunters fell by 90 percent between 1971 and 2008 and the number of birds harvested by 92 percent.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates that 15 percent of hunters in the state pursue pheasants. That has the commission scrambling with a plan to save a tradition by which scores of novice hunters gained an appreciation for the sport.

But it also has some wondering if pheasant hunting — once an autumn staple — is destined to blink out altogether here.

"We either have to figure out how to fix this," Ali said, "or say, 'You know what, guys, it's over.' "

The disappearance

Pheasant hunting in Pennsylvania provided as great an opportunity to bag a bird as anywhere in the country during the early 1970s. The state's best range held as many as 120 pheasants per square mile.

Then everything changed.

By 2007 the Game Commission estimated there were between zero and three pheasants per square mile on most of the state's agricultural lands. It cautioned even that might be "biased high."

Experts blamed changes in the landscape — not predators or disease.

Pheasants thrive in areas with 20 percent undisturbed grasslands, according to Pheasants Forever, a national conservation group. Pennsylvania once had plenty of that habitat, said Mike Pruss, private lands section chief for the Game Commission.

But it lost more than 25 percent of its farmland during the second half of the 20th century, largely to urban sprawl, and was losing 180 acres of open space each day in 2001, according to a report issued by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Grassland birds paid the price.

"In Pennsylvania, species such as the grasshopper sparrow, vesper sparrow, bobolink, eastern meadowlark, bobwhite quail and ring-necked pheasant have declined by 80 percent or more since the mid-1960s, and 43 percent of all grassland species show significant declines, while none show significant increases in the state since 1980," according to the report.

The open space that's left is more intensively farmed than ever, meaning there are fewer fencerows offering escape cover, fewer hay fields left standing long enough to provide nesting cover and fewer insects for food.

"A lot of the state just doesn't offer good habitat for pheasants, and it probably won't for the foreseeable future," Pruss said.

Bringing them back

The Game Commission and Pheasants Forever have spent the past few years trying to reverse that.

The commission — guided by its first-ever pheasant management plan — has established "wild pheasant recovery areas" in four parts of the state, with a fifth proposed. In each, wild pheasants from South Dakota and/or Montana are being released, and all pheasant hunting and bird dog training is prohibited.

The plan calls for stocking wild birds in each area for three years, then studying their fate for three more.

"The goal is to see if we can get to 10 hens per square mile, minimum," said John Dunn, chief of game management for the commission. "Anything less than that we would not consider a success. Fewer birds would not be able to sustain hunting opportunities, which is really why we're doing this."

Other parts of the Northeast are experiencing similar pheasant shortages because of a loss of farmland habitat. But only Pennsylvania is trying to re-establish wild birds and stock such large numbers of pen-raised ones, according to spokesmen for the Ohio, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and West Virginia game departments.

No one has successfully re-established large-scale populations during the past few decades, said Pheasants Forever spokesman Anthony Hauck.

Pennsylvania tried jump-starting flocks in similar ways twice before. In the late 1980s the Game Commission introduced Sichuan pheasants — a variety that prefers brushier cover to grasslands — in select areas. In the mid-1990s it flooded areas with ringnecks and Sichuans. Both projects failed.

"Maybe calling this a last-ditch effort isn't the right phrase," Hauck said, "but when you have nothing wild left to speak of, there are some serious challenges."

How it is working

The project's early returns have been mixed.

One of the four pheasant recovery areas — the Central Susquehanna in Northumberland, Montour, Columbia and Lycoming counties — is exceeding its goal and supporting 15 hens per square mile.

The Hegins-Gratz recovery area in Schuylkill and Dauphin counties received its first birds this year, so no population estimates are available.

The two others — in the Pike Run watershed in Washington County and around Berlin in Somerset — largely are failing. Both have wild pheasants where before they had none, said Scott Klinger, a commission biologist. Pike Run is supporting three hens per square mile, Somerset just one, he said.

It can take as much as 100,000 acres with the right mix of hay fields and row crops to support pheasants, Dunn said. The problem is there just aren't many big blocks of habitat like that left outside of southcentral and southeast Pennsylvania, he said.

"The big question is whether we have enough nesting cover for these birds to repopulate," said Larry Crespo, the commission biologist monitoring the Washington and Somerset recovery areas. "It looks pretty grim."

If after six years — three of stocking, three of monitoring — a recovery area shows that it cannot sustain huntable numbers, the Game Commission's plan calls for re-opening the area to general pheasant hunting, said commission biologist Scott Klinger.

Pike Run is completing that six-year cycle and could be opened up this fall. But the project still has been worthwhile, said Jose Taracido, farmland habitat program supervisor at California University of Pennsylvania, who has been working on the project since its inception. It pioneered the way for the entire pheasant recovery effort, he said.

"When we went into this thing, it was totally with the understanding that this could fall on its face," he said. "But we had to start somewhere. That's why, as far as I'm concerned, this has been a success already, based on what's happened across the rest of the state."

Stocked birds

The Game Commission has a Plan B for pheasants in areas that can't support wild ones — stocked birds.

They aren't meant to live long. Numerous studies have shown that, even if they escape hunters, fewer than 5 percent of pen-raised birds make it through one winter. But they do offer put-and-take recreation.

Raising them is costly, however.

The commission has been breeding about 100,000 birds on its four game farms at a cost of about $2.5 million — or $25 per bird. It's doubling that to 200,000 pheasants by fall of 2012 by using some of the $18 million in Marcellus shale gas lease revenues announced in April. It hopes to hit 250,000 in the long term.

That should drop the price closer to $15 per bird because the infrastructure is already in place, said Bob Boyd, wildlife services division chief for the Game Commission.

"But there's no doubt that it's one of the most expensive programs in the Pennsylvania Game Commission," said Ralph Martone, a member of its board of directors from Lawrence County.

It's a cost the agency has long struggled with. It was stocking 200,000 pheasants annually prior to 2005 but had to halve that because of ongoing budget constraints stemming partly from the fact state lawmakers haven't raised the price of hunting licenses — a major source of revenue for the commission — since 1999. There is no plan to hike fees this year, either, said Rep. John Evans, the Crawford County Republican who chairs the House Game and Fisheries Committee.

Given that there are no guarantees how much the commission will make through gas leases, or for how long, that makes some wonder whether the commission can sustain raising 200,000 birds of even continue the program long-term.

"You have to have the revenue," said Ted Onufrak, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "If you can't get it, and the commission can't afford everything, I could see where this might be one of the first things to go."

Jay Delaney, a Game Commissioner from Luzerne County, is committed to having pheasants. He said he believes hunting needs them, even more so than hunters.

"Small-game hunting needs to be the fundamental foundation for our youth," he said. "We've got to look 20 or 30 years down the road and see where we want to be as an agency and as a sport. If you look at our diverse sportsmen and how they got started in this hunting tradition and why they're still around, it's because they came from a small-game background."

Yet other small-game species also are in decline, leaving no real alternative.

It's essential the commission support pheasants, Martone said.

"It's almost a necessity for our youth hunters," he said.

A question of time

The window for saving Pennsylvania's pheasant hunting may be closing.

The Game Commission partners with sportsmen's clubs to hold youth pheasant hunts. They are popular locally — nearly half of those held annually occur in the southwest region — but in all drew fewer than 900 kids each in 2008 and 2009 and fewer than 800 last year.

Pennsylvania's average hunter, meanwhile, is 44 years old. Its average pheasant hunter is 45. Pheasants Forever's average member is 52.

"This is a critical time for all of this, I think, because we still have the older guys who remember the heyday. But I'm 35. I don't remember that," Crespo said. "I remember going out with my dad and hunting for stocked birds here and there, and it was fun, but I don't remember it like some of these guys.

"Are enough guys my age and younger going to care enough about pheasants long enough to see this through?"

That's a question Pheasants Forever confronts all the time, Hauck said. Creating habitat is the key, but that's "not always a popular message in this era of instant gratification."

"Fighting apathy is half the battle," Hauck said. "Keeping people's spirits up and keeping them moving forward when success can seem so far out in the future is tough sometimes."

Delaney is cautiously optimistic the battle can be won.

"Pheasant hunting here is never going to be like it was in the '50s, '60s and '70s again," Delaney said. "My hope is that we can have the best of both worlds — wild birds in areas with good habitat and stocked birds in the places that don't but where we have hunters who want to be able to chase birds close to home."

Ali would like to see the same thing but said it better happen soon.

"We're at a crossroads," he said. "No doubt about that."

Additional Information:

Diminishing returns

Here is a look at how pheasant hunting has changed in Pennsylvania through the years:

1971*: 838,394 pheasant hunters; 1,322,675 pheasants harvested

1980: 767,000 pheasant hunters; 917,490 pheasants harvested

1990: 274,957 pheasant hunters; 302,276 pheasants harvested

2000: 149,260 pheasant hunters; 233,537 pheasants harvested

2008: 86,052 pheasant hunters; 110,331 pheasants harvested

*Peak for pheasant hunters and pheasant harvests

Source: Pennsylvania Game Commission

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