Illinois' Pheasant Forecast

Illinois' Pheasant Forecast

The Illinois pheasant population held its own in areas with good wintering habitat. But in areas of "marginal" habitat, the result of an afternoon spent afield may be little more than exercise. (November 2008).

The IDNR, USDA and Pheasants Forever are working to restore grasslands for pheasant habitat and hunting.
Photo by Windigo Images.

If you were pleased with pheasant hunting success in Illinois last year, you should only be mildly disappointed in the coming season. A brutal winter and cold, wet spring has had a devastating effect on pheasant populations all across the Midwest.

The multi-colored birds in the Prairie State held their own in areas with good overwinter habitat. But in areas with marginal habitat -- few shelter belts, grassy waterways, switch grass fields or residual acreage in the dwindling Conservation Reserve Program -- the likely result of an afternoon afield may be little more than exercise.

"Last winter was bad," Illinois Department of Natural Resources communications manager Chris McCloud said. "Our spring call count routes only averaged 2.52 calls per stop. This is down 25 percent from last year."

McCloud said ideal nesting conditions in the spring with an average summer would have meant hunting results similar to last year, "but when you see snow showers in late April and it feels good to wear a sweatshirt in early June, conditions simply aren't conducive to pheasant production. We can probably anticipate a statewide harvest of 100,000 to 200,000 pheasants."

The median number in this estimate would be close to the rooster harvest five years ago -- 158,304 birds. But an honest look at long-term trends when coupled with the double weather whammy last season probably means about 100,000 birds will go home in hunters' game bags this autumn.

Compare that with the mid-1960s when Illinois hunters shot more than a million pheasants.

A series of rough winters at the end of that decade ushered in the Conservation Reserve Program and the founding of Pheasants Forever. Today, there are 45 PF chapters with nearly 8,000 members in Illinois alone. These people and the work they have done are the major reason we still have the opportunity to hunt wild pheasants.

Because of the impact of CRP and the stewardship of Pheasants Forever, pheasant hunting enjoyed a renaissance throughout most of the 1990s with several harvests numbering nearly half a million birds.

But by the last of the decade, both ringneck harvests and hunter participation had declined substantially. According to 1998 IDNR statistics, 237,382 ringnecks were harvested by 77,069 hunters in 417,367 trips afield compared with 158,304 birds taken five years ago by only 59,050 hunters in 297,292 trips afield.

Like all government agencies, the DNR must fight for every available dollar, so public use patterns carry considerable weight regarding which DNR bureaus get the largest slice of the budget pie.

Twenty years ago, there were many more pheasant hunters, and upland game biologists carried considerable clout when it came time to allocate the budget.

With pheasant hunter numbers in Illinois declining at a double-digit rate over the past decade, that once loud voice is now little more than a whisper and upland game management receives mere crumbs of the DNR budget pie.

Additionally, federally funded conservation reserve acreage has gone to states with lower property values like the Dakotas. As of February, there were only 237,693 acres of CRP grassland in 43 counties of Illinois pheasant range.

Of that total, only 129,262 acres were fields, a much better wintering habitat than the 108,431 acres placed in buffers -- field borders and filter strips -- that provide limited escape cover from predators like hawks and coyotes in addition to being a poor option for surviving severe weather.

"Because the playing field was less than level between the states, Illinois couldn't take full advantage of CRP to begin with, so really the loss of CRP acreage over the past couple of years consists of a fairly small negative impact," McCloud said.

McCloud is cautiously optimistic about the new CRP program SAFE -- State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement -- that is expected to bring 20,000 acres of new grasslands to Illinois.

The SAFE program is based on taking croplands out of production for a longer time than previous CRP programs.

"The new farm bill might be better for Illinois if there is an increased emphasis on utilizing continuous CRP practices rather than the bidding process," McCloud said. "But what goes on in Washington is an entirely different arena than politics here in Illinois."

If it weren't for close friends and family, I wouldn't have a place to hunt roosters in Illinois this fall, at least for free.

The days when an upland game hunter could knock on a farmer's door and get permission to work through a promising patch of cover are essentially over. Pheasant hunting in Illinois this autumn and in the future fall into one of three "F" categories -- family, friend or fee.

Hunting clubs that either lease private lands or raise and release birds on club property are now a way of life in the Prairie State. Most of these clubs have a strong affiliation with Pheasants Forever working to enhance habitat and apply political pressure for both DNR programs and funding allocation.

This activism dovetails with DNR goals regarding pheasant management.

"The DNR will continue to work with the USDA and partners like Pheasants Forever to ensure that conservation practices maximize the amount of safe nest cover on each farm in the pheasant range," McCloud said. "We will also use dedicated funds to restore and acquire grasslands for pheasant habitat restoration and hunting."

Illinois' historic pheasant range is essentially the northern two-thirds of the state. Back in the years when pheasants were a byproduct of agriculture, Champaign County was the epicenter of ringneck hunting.

Since then, the bull's-eye has shifted slightly to Ford, Livingston, McLean and Mason counties in central Illinois and Lee and Whiteside counties in the northern part of the state.

The reason pheasant density is greater in these counties is directly related to habitat, and hab

itat is directly related to activism from groups like Pheasants Forever.

This activism has helped convince the IDNR to acquire properties and manage them for pheasant hunting. Over the past two years, McCloud said, the department has acquired three sites totaling 977 acres to provide public-hunting opportunities for folks who don't have connections to the land through family or friends or the inclination to pay a large fee for the privilege of hunting ringnecks.

McCloud said Milks Grove Pheasant Habitat in northwest Iroquois County totaling 80 acres will open this fall, with the other two areas in McLean and DeWitt counties "probably open by next season."

The DNR's chief pheasant biologist John Cole said these three new state pheasant-hunting areas will be managed to "optimize natural habitat to foster an environment that will attract and hold wild ringnecks. We don't plan on releasing pen-reared birds on these sites."

Cole noted, "We are sensitive to Illinois' long tradition of hunting wild pheasants and realize changing times is making this pursuit more difficult for the average upland hunter. The Milks Grove area may prove to be the template for IDNR pheasant management practices in the future."

The DNR raises and releases birds for 14 sites that are part of an agency-controlled pheasant hunting program at fish and wildlife areas across the state. Hunting at these areas is by permit only.

Last season, permits for resident hunters cost $15 a day, but, pending approval by the General Assembly, the price may jump to $25 a day, which is still a bargain for Illinois hunters.

Raising quality pheasants for hunting is expensive. The average cost is $9 to $13 per bird. Like Illinois' catchable trout program, the Controlled Pheasant Hunting Program is essentially a put-and-take operation.

Pen-reared birds don't possess many of the survival skills found in native pheasants. Studies indicate that the overwinter mortality of these ringnecks is more than 95 percent.

Many of these birds fall victim to natural predators or disease before gun-toting hunters can experience their thrill. Last year, 63,391 pheasants were released on 14 state-managed properties in this program. Surveys indicate hunters harvested 36,128 of these birds.

The Des Plaines SFWA and Eldon Hazlet SRA saw both the highest release and highest harvest totals. Hunters at Des Plaines shot 9,561 birds out of 17,108 released, while those walking fields at the Eldon Hazlet State Recreation Area took home 5,334 pheasants out of the 8,169 released.

"Several factors are considered in how many birds we release per site," Cole said. "Available acreage and number of permit requests both drive our stocking efforts."

The smallest harvest was just three pheasants at the Edward R. Madigan SFWA out of 60 birds released, but DNR statistics indicate only four hunter trips were made to the area.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to hunt pen-reared birds at the Green River SWA in northern Illinois, expecting a less than challenging experience. Boy, was I wrong! Our party of four hunters managed to bag five birds, none of which fell to this gun after pre-trip bragging resulted in a self-imposed restriction of taking just four shells.

Hunter success at Green River last year was 1.14 birds harvested per hunter, about average for these state wildlife areas. The highest hunter success was reported at the Jim Edgar Panther Creek SFWA where 3,833 out of 5,525 birds released went home in game bags for a hunter success ratio of 1.46 pheasants per hunter.

Information on the 2008 Controlled Pheasant Hunting Program, including season dates, regulations and the permit procedure is available at www.Irsidnrpermits.com.

In addition to these managed hunting areas, the DNR, in partnership with a private concessionaire, offers pheasant hunting at four other sites across the state. Hunting at the Chain-O-Lakes, Ramsey Lake, Silver Springs and Horseshoe Lake sites costs nearly twice as much as hunting on state-managed properties, but the allowable daily bag is doubled -- four birds of either sex per day.

"In an attempt to offer diverse hunting opportunities to the public, the hunting on our four public/private partnership sites is an attempt to provide the hunting club experience to hunters of average means without having to pay outrageous private hunt club prices," McCloud said.

The concessionaire bears the expense of raising and releasing pheasants at the partnership hunting areas.

"With fuel costs at more than $4 a gallon a day, even a short hop from home to recreation properties can be pretty pricey," he said. "At least one of these sites is less than a three-hour drive from just about anywhere in the state. Share the expense with a couple of buddies and it may be the hunting highlight of your entire year."

Details on the public/private partnership sites are available online at www.tmillerinc.com/.

The Prairie State pheasant picture is certainly different than when I first entered the field in 1962, but the world has changed as well. I remember leaving Mt. Carroll High School and boarding a school bus to hunt pheasants out on Bobbie Wiltshire's farm back in the 1960s.

The bus driver didn't even raise an eyebrow at a kid toting a shotgun in a cheap cloth case. Behavior like that in today's world would probably generate a SWAT response, even in rural Carroll County.

But the good news is we still have the right to bear arms and the opportunity to hunt pheasants in Illinois.

If just a few things change, ringneck hunting five years from now may rival the numbers harvested five years ago, and that may even be a conservative estimate.

"The future of pheasants in Illinois is tied to what happens on the state's farms and with USDA conservation programs," McCloud said. "Substantial increases in pheasant numbers could be achieved if conservation programs that restore nesting areas are more widely adopted by farmers.

"Sportsmen need to encourage landowners to reduce unnecessary mowing and restore grassland wherever possible on their farms. Practices like filter strips, field borders and taking erosion-prone areas out of crop production could add thousands of acres of nest cover and thousands of pheasants to the state's population."

McCloud is absolutely right, but a sportsman from Chicago who comes to a farm in Whiteside County and offers this wisdom before asking permission to hunt would be well advised to keep information on IDNR Web sites available. Folks who live in rural areas still have a considerably different outlook on life than city dwellers in the increasingly urbanized state of Illinois.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.