State rooster outlook could be better

Madison — Mention pheasants to most Wisconsinites and they don’t
think of the railroad yards that run along the shores of Lake
Superior in the city named for that big lake, but that’s where this
writer got his first exposure to the gaudy bird of upland
legend.

The grain elevators and trains that transported that cargo from
the endless fields far to the west ran through the cattail marshes
of Superior, providing food and cover for pheasants, along with a
lot of hunting for some 12-year-old boys.

Even long before those youthful exploits in the far north,
pheasant hunting was a long-standing tradition in some parts of
Wisconsin. Introduced as a game bird here in the late 1800s, ideal
habitat, mainly related to farming practices, allowed the
population to flourish and expand to other areas of the state,
including, for some reason, northern Douglas county. By the 1940s
pheasant populations began to decline because of changes in land
usage and habitat. Today’s population is found mostly in the
southeastern third of the state and a few of the counties in the
west-central regions of Wisconsin.

A significant decline in pheasant numbers was addressed by the
DNR with the creation of the pheasant stamp in 1991; the funds are
used to restore habitat and provide a management program for this
popular game bird. Many thousands of acres have been preserved and
restored, ensuring nesting cover and winter habitat for our
pheasants.

Recent surveys show Wisconsin pheasant numbers to be lower than
hunters would like to see. Mail carrier surveys, similar to surveys
done in pheasant-rich states, have been conducted in 32 counties
across the state’s pheasant range the past few years. Those surveys
show continued declines in numbers. The 2009 survey found 35
percent fewer pheasants than the previous year and came in at .44
birds per 100 miles driven, down from .68 birds in the 2008 survey.
Lafayette County came in with the highest number of birds observed,
with 1.90 birds seen per 100 miles logged by survey respondents.
The top counties were Washington, St. Croix, and Polk at 1.46,
1.26, and 0.79 birds seen per 100 miles, respectively.

DNR Acting Upland Wildlife Ecologist Sharon Fandel said, “The
spring pheasant surveys were down a bit this year, but not nearly
by the decreases we witnessed in 2008 (above-average snowfall
followed by an extremely wet, cool spring) and 2009 (above-average
snowfall followed by a cool spring and summer) when reproduction
took quite a hit.”

Another factor in Wisconsin’s pheasant equation is the same that
other states with larger pheasant numbers face – the large turnover
in acreage under the Conservation Reserve Program. Many landowners
who were enrolled in the pheasant- and hunter-friendly program have
taken their potential pheasant habitat land out of CRP and put it
back into production for corn and other crops. The double whammy of
wet, cool springs impacting brood survival and the removal of land
from CRP has resulted in pheasant numbers going down in Wisconsin
the past few years.

The year’s wet spring seemed a bit ominous once again, but there
were some positive signs for Wisconsin pheasants.

“This year has been quite wet as well, but we started off with
an early, warm dry spell and we received anecdotal reports of early
upland bird broods, suggesting that perhaps at least some birds
were taking advantage of the early warmup and nesting early,”
Fandel said. “We haven’t yet tallied our results for the 10-week
brood observation survey, so beyond anecdotal observations I’m a
bit hesitant to say how reproduction fared this year until we have
those results compiled.”

While Wisconsin strives to have a healthy, vibrant reproducing
population, the state also stocks a lot of pheasants. This year,
the DNR plans to release about 51,000 pheasants on 71 public
hunting grounds. In addition, roughly 37,000 chicks were provided
to 34 sportsmen’s clubs enrolled in the Day-Old Chick Program. The
cooperating clubs release these birds on public hunting grounds and
private lands open to public hunting. Stocking typically begins the
week prior to the opener, and continues through early December or
until a property has reached its allotment. The public can get more
information on which properties will receive pheasants on the DR
pheasant web site at
http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/hunt/pheasant.

The bottom line is that there are opportunities for Wisconsin
pheasant hunters on a variety of properties located mainly in the
southern part of the state. Naturally reproducing native birds are
going to be available as they have for decades and added hunting
opportunities can be had on land open to the public, both public
hunting grounds and on private lands open to hunting.

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