Pheasant numbers on the rise, but still have a ways to go
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2014 - Hunters across the country are in the midst of a pheasant hunting season that looks to be the most promising in recent years, but a representative with a wildlife conservation group says that's “not the whole story.”
Unfavorable winter and spring weather between 2008 and 2014 and recent significant habitat loss have contributed to serious declines in the pheasant population. While national numbers are difficult to come by, South Dakota - largely regarded as the top pheasant hunting state in the country - saw bird numbers jump 76 percent, but that leap is still 53 percent below the 10-year average.
Other states are experiencing similar levels of recovery, but Pheasants Forever public relations specialist Jared Wiklund said a full rebound will take some time.
“Although short-term gains in population for the 2014 season are encouraging, this needs to be taken in context with the substantial upland habitat losses of recent years,” Wiklund said in an email to Agri-Pulse. “Population losses experienced over the past few years have not been solved. While tough winters and wet springs play a role in population changes, it's the loss of habitat that's responsible for the long-term decline of pheasants in United States.”
Commodity prices hit record levels in the summers of 2008, 2011, and 2012, which led to land being taken out of USDA's Conservation Reserve Program. Under CRP, farmers to “agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality,” according to the program's website.
Land is typically enrolled in CRP in 10-15 year contracts, and when some of those contracts expired during the commodity price boom, many producers put land formerly in the program into production. Wiklund said Pheasants Forever is hopeful many producers will take advantage of conservation programs like CRP as commodity prices continue to fall.
“Farmers and landowners have an opportunity this year to contribute significant efforts to upland game bird [quail, grouse, and pheasants] populations through establishment of conservation practices, and I think many would be happy with the financial incentives that follow,” Wiklund explained.
Aside from hunters, many people have reason to hope for a population rebound. Hunting is seen as a lucrative business for small towns seeking to lure out-of-state travel dollars. On a drive down a state highway during hunting season, a business that doesn't have a blaze orange banner welcoming hunters is usually either closed or hasn't quite gotten around to hanging a sign of their own.
A 2011 report released by Hunting in America showed total hunting-related spending topped $38.3 billion that year. The report doesn't specifically mention pheasant hunting revenue but does note expenditures related to upland gamebird hunting, which includes pheasants, was more than $2.88 billion. South Dakota topped contributors to the upland gamebird list at $223.9 million followed by $187.4 million from New York, mostly from grouse hunting.
In terms of bird population, Iowa looks poised to experience the biggest rebound with a 151 percent increase in the pheasant count. Pheasants Forever's website says Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska also look to be prepared for marked increases. Wiklund said it is important to realize that favorable weather can only do so much and that habitat will be critical if producers and sportsman alike want to experience a full population rebound.
“We're not going to recover in one year,” Wiklund said. “We can only recover as much as the habitat will allow.”
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