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Pheasant Problems Discussed

Some of Fish and Game's lands can offer temporary relief to Idaho's pheasant hunting addicts but total recovery requires a lot more. Wildlife Bureau Chief Steve Huffaker explained some of the problems facing the department in its efforts to provide more pheasant hunting opportunity in a special report to the Fish and Game Commission at its recent meeting in Orofino. Huffaker noted that Fish and Game's Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) serve many hunters in pursuit of a wide variety of game birds and animals but WMAs do not offer enough pheasant habitat to satisfy demand. Several WMAs in southern Idaho do have wild ringnecks but not enough for more than a few days of hunting each year. The department tripled planting of game farm pheasants in the fall of 2000 in an attempt to give hunters more opportunity on eight WMAs, Huffaker said. The department made a serious effort to remove predators on one WMA where game farm birds were introduced before the nesting season. Predators are a factor in pheasant production, Huffaker added. "We need to get public expectation in line with reality in that we can't get high populations back without getting the land back to where there is significantly more habitat," he said. Huffaker explained that 10 birds per mile on a brood count is about the maximum potential for pheasant. In the 1960s, Idaho had four to six birds per mile. Now brood counts turn up fewer than one per mile in those same areas. Average pheasant harvest per hunter has gone from seven per season to four and there are far fewer hunters. The pattern of decline here is the same as in other pheasant rearing states. Bigger farms, bigger fields, corporate farms, and chemicals all play a part. Where there is extensive retirement of marginal farmland, as in South Dakota, Conservation Reserve Program lands provide excellent pheasant habitat. Pheasants and pheasant hunting are increasing there. But, in Idaho, the trend is mainly toward more intensive agricultural development, center pivot irrigation that eliminates ditches and wastewater ponds, and more dairy hay operations. The difference is large blocks of undisturbed grass, edge habitat, roosting sites, thermal cover such as cattail marshes in winter, and food. Good pheasant production comes with large areas of undisturbed habitat, ideally a quarter township in size, Huffaker said. Idaho has "islands" of suitable habitat. Fish and Game is looking toward partnerships with conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited as well as agencies like the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to find areas where habitat can be built, Huffaker said. He cited a partnership with the Twin Falls Canal Company to create habitat as one example of department efforts. Other possibilities include new federal farm legislation that may contain funding for projects to help pheasants. Sportsman organizations are entertaining ideas for financial rewards for landowners who maintain good habitat, including a "walk-in" program like those in the Dakotas and Montana.