Pheasant harvest is receiving scrutiny

Harrisburg — Throw ‘em out there and hope hunters find them quickly, the sooner the better.

That seems to be the strategy employed by most wildlife management agencies when it comes to stocking ring-necked pheasants for hunters.

A review suggests few try to figure out how many of those birds end up feeding human hunters rather than wild predators, and even fewer are willing to set a benchmark for success.

That’s relevant to Pennsylvania right now.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is conducting a pheasant harvest study this fall in an attempt to figure out what percentage of stocked birds end up being taken by sportsmen. Roughly 5,500 of the 200,000-plus birds being released will be wearing leg bands. 

About 1,000 of those will be worth cash rewards, though there’s no way for hunters to know that reporting it.

Hunters who take a banded bird are being encouraged to report their harvest via a toll-free phone number of online.

Josh Johnson, the commission’s wildlife biometrician, expects many hunters will cooperate and report their birds.

“We rely on hunters in conducting many of our studies, and we survey many of our hunters each year to learn more about how their hunting seasons went and gauge their opinions on topics, and year after year they step up,” Johnson said. 

“Hunting is an important part of the lives of many Pennsylvanians, and I expect the state’s pheasant hunters will show us just that through their reporting of banded birds.” 

There’s less certainty – or should be – about how to measure whether the pheasant stocking program is or should be considered successful.

The commission did a similar study once before, in 1998. It found that, in general, hunters were taking about half of stocked birds.

But that came with qualifiers.

Hunters took 62 percent of cockbirds stocked on public land, for instance, but only 47 percent on private land. They killed 50 percent of hens released on public land and 31 percent of those released on private.

It was expensive either way.

“The average cost per harvested pheasant as $29.10, but ranged from $22.63 to $90.74 depending on the date and location of the release,” reads the report resulting from that study.

Bob Boyd, who heads up the commission’s propagation division, said the commission made some changes to its stocking program as a result of that earlier study, putting out birds in smaller numbers but more frequently, with stockings taking place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, to get them out closer to when hunters are likely to pursue them.

It’s also switched to stocking more public land at the expense of private, he said.

Ongoing are efforts to more precisely map the location of pheasant stockings so hunters can better find birds, he added.

The hope is that this new study will show those changes to be putting more birds in hunter hands, he said.

The commission can’t just get that information elsewhere.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife stocks 15,000 pheasants annually. But it can’t say how many are taken by hunters. It just doesn’t have that data, said spokesman John Windau.

“We looked at the Game Commission’s last study (in 1998), and we’ve tried to adjust our program to adopt all of the recommendations that came out of it, to make sure we’re in line with that. But we’ve not studied harvest rates ourselves,” Windau said.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation can’t offer much more than that, and what information it does have isn’t encouraging.

It stocks 30,000 pheasants a year, and once – in 2009 – put radio collars on birds to see what happened to them. The department found that 21 percent of birds – one in five – were harvested in one area, 31 percent in another.

That’s good enough, apparently.

The department won’t say how many birds it wants or needs to have taken by hunters. Instead, said spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach, “consistent with one of the objectives in DEC’s pheasant management plan, we have focused on improving and increasing hunting access and harvest opportunities for all propagated pheasants released by DEC, program cooperators, and others.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Agencies have been stocking birds for a long, long time, all the while knowing that the vast majority will disappear quickly.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department several years ago did a review of pheasant stocking history, looking at how birds were stocked and how they fared once released. 

It found scientific studies examining stockings going back as far as 1964. They were conducted in all manner of places, from Ireland and Sweden to Illinois, Pennsylvania and points in between.

All had a couple of things in common: stocked birds don’t survive nearly as well as wild ones, and hunters are lucky to take half of released birds.

One of the earliest is a 1964 study looking at stocking pheasants on private shooting preserves in Wisconsin. Its author estimated only half of birds went to hunters.

“He recommended releasing pheasants shortly before hunting – within hours, not days or weeks – to increase recovery of released birds,” Montana’s summation reads.

A1970 Illinois study – one of the first ever to use radio collars on birds – found that 81 percent of pen-reared birds were dead within 28 days of release. Predation was the leading cause of mortality.

With that in mind, some states require hunters to buy a special pheasant license before they can harvest birds. New Jersey is one; a number of western states do the same.

The goal is to help offset, if not cover completely, the cost of the pheasant stocking programs.

That’s how Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection does things. It requires hunters to get a pheasant stamp, then uses that money – and it alone – to buy birds for release. Fewer permits sold means fewer pheasants purchased.

The Game Commission is not considering a pheasant stamp, even though some have suggested it do so, especially now that it’s already asking lawmakers to increase hunting license fees. But it has made one commitment.

“The Game Commission will use the results of this fall’s study, not only to determine pheasant harvest rates, but also to assess where opportunities exist to maximize the number of hunter-harvested pheasants through changes in stocking strategies,” reads an official statement.

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