Long Tail Feathers

Long Tail Feathers

Wild pheasant populations fluctuate with the amount of quality habitat available to them, which challenges bird hunters to find the best areas year in and year out. Here are the Intermountain hotspots for 2005.

Photo by Chuck Robbins

Some public lands, such as national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas and wildlife management areas comprise outstanding habitat and excellent pheasant populations, though, by and large, the bulk of prime pheasant habitat is privately owned. Therefore, quality wild pheasant hunting and access to private lands are joined inextricably at the hip. No matter how many longtails there are in a given season, or a given locale, if you can't get at them, numbers become a moot point.

Of course, there are plenty of primo hotspots and landowners more than happy to let you hunt -- for a fee. That may be okay for some but it sure isn't my style. Thanks to various programs for free access to private lands, there is a better way.

While the concept is similar among the various states, each program operates under a different label and the amount of acreage involved varies greatly. Montana's Block Management Program leads the pack with a whopping 8.5 million acres enrolled last year. Wyoming's Walk-In-Hunting program, a distant second with less than 500,000 acres enrolled in 2004, has been growing steadily since its inception in 1999. Colorado's Walk-In-Access, enrolled about 160,000 acres last year and continues to grow. And while Idaho's Access Yes! enrolled just 90,000 acres last year, officials hope the program will grow to 1 million acres. Not all of the acreage enrolled constitutes pheasant habitat, but enough of it is to allow hunters across the region decent free access to private land pheasant hunting.

Not ironically, the above four states top the regional rankings for 2005 pheasant hunting prospects.

Among the also-rans, Utah pheasant hunting prospects outdistances the hunting in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico but that isn't saying much. Utah's pheasant habitat is in sharp decline, and the outlook for its future is grim and getting grimmer with each new subdivision. Arizona pheasants are limited to just six scattered remnant populations, with hunting by falconry or archery only. During the 1980s, perhaps the last time anyone checked, the average annual statewide kill was 21.5 birds, and that's not a typo! That New Mexico holds a four-day season, much of it permit only, about says it all. An inquiry to NDOW on Nevada's upcoming prospects brought this vague response: "You might try the country east of Carson City, but if I were you quail and chukar are looking much better."

Indeed.

MONTANA

Montana in the opinion of many, including this reporter, ranks right up there with the best. That is, assuming you and your dog work at it and that you hunt in good pheasant habitat, any fair to middling shot can reasonably expect a bird or three in the bag any day of the season. Even in an off-year the Treasure State boasts plenty of wild birds and unparalleled free access to private lands in addition to scads of primo covers on public lands.

Montana is a big place, the fourth largest state by landmass, and of course pheasants do not live within a day trip of virtually anywhere you might start a day here. Nearly 65 percent of Montana is in private ownership. Thanks to the cooperative efforts of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, hunters and landowners, a lot of private land is now open to hunting. Block Management Access leads the way, but a number of other reimbursement programs, such as Access Montana, the Upland Game Bird Release Program, Livestock Loss Reimbursement Program, Game Damage Program and Special Landowner licensing, have helped the access situation immensely.

Within the 8.5 million acres enrolled in the BMA program thousands upon thousands support pheasants. Much of the best is also enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Proof just how important CRP is to pheasant production and hunting prospects in general became startlingly apparent last season. Due to the ongoing drought, livestock grazing was allowed on some tracts. Even those without a degree in wildlife biology could predict the outcome: poor pheasant reproduction. Hunters need to cross fingers and toes that the setback is temporary, and that enough moisture falls to make grazing CRP a one-shot deal.

How good is Montana? In the best years, the best habitat often supports mind-boggling numbers of birds. For example, opening dawn a couple years ago, Katie the wirehair pointed a corner of a big BMA alfalfa field beside the Yellowstone River. Rushing to her aid, we were suddenly confronted by wave after wave of rising, cackling roosters and many more hens -- way too many to count. When the smoke cleared ... Okay, we could have done better!

According to Wildlife Management Bureau Chief Gary Hammond, prospects for the upcoming fall are looking good. "A mild, dry winter combined with good spring moisture should provide adequate nesting cover and lots of insects for brood rearing," he said. "Across the board, spring crowing counts were excellent. Bottom line, barring the unforeseen, we should be looking at pretty darn good pheasant hunting."

Ground zero is Region 6 in the state's northeast corner. The country between Sidney and Plentywood is good for starters. Within Regions 4, 5 and 7 almost any stream bottom is likely to harbor good numbers also. The best plan for those who've never been is to contact FWP and request the Block Management list for the particular region(s). With those in hand contact the various landowners who list "pheasants specifically or upland birds." It is also worthwhile to check out any WMA, WPA or NWR within the area(s) you are interested. Some of those public lands provide remarkable longtail hunting.

A non-resident upland bird license costs $110, plus $10 hunting access enhancement fee (applied to the first license purchase each year).

Pheasant season opens in mid-October and runs through Jan. 1. (Check the current regulations for exact dates.) The daily limit is three cocks, nine in possession.

IDAHO

Idaho supports a wide range of opportunities and thriving pheasant populations in spots. But access to private lands pales compared to Montana; some of the best can be difficult to downright impossible.

Idaho's top spots for pheasants are in the southwest, in the bottoms of the Bruneau and Owyhee rivers. The Snake River Canyon in the Lewiston area and ranch lands around Orofino are not far behind. There is good hunting up in the Panhandle around Coeur d'Alene as well, but access can be a problem.

Idaho's Access Yes! program provides hunters free access to private land pheasant habitat --

some of it primo. In general, the farther you get from population centers the more knocking on doors is likely to pay off.

I happen to be a wild bird fanatic so the stocked bird option doesn't mean much to me. But for who are less narrow-minded than me, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game maintains an aggressive and quite popular stocking program on nine selected wildlife management areas. The Market Lake, Mud Lake, Cartier, Sterling, Fort Boise, C.J. Strike, Payette River (Birding Island segment only), Montour and Niagara WMAs receive bi-weekly plantings throughout the season. Hunters must purchase an upland bird license plus a $21.50 WMA permit. The permit is required for hunters aged 17 and older. Permits are valid for six pheasants, and multiple permits may be purchased. As you might expect the release sites get a fair share of pressure and those birds that escape the initial onslaught tend to scatter and/or hide in the toughest cover. Success then goes to the hunters willing to go the extra mile, so to speak, and more often than not, the winning combination includes a good dog or two.

Idaho's season varies according to hunt zone: Zone 1 (Panhandle) runs from the first week in October to Dec. 31, with a limit of three cocks daily, six in possession; Zone 2 (Southeast) runs from mid-October to Nov. 30, with a limit of three cocks daily, six in possession, except for stocked WMAs where the daily limit is two cocks daily, six in possession; and the season in Zone 3 (Southwest) runs from mid-October to Dec. 31, three cocks daily, six in possession, except for stocked WMAs where the daily limit is two cocks, six in possession. Always check the regulations to be sure.

A non-resident upland bird license costs $73.50.

WYOMING

"Wyoming is just not a pheasant state. Marginal at best, we don't encourage hunters to drive a long way to hunt pheasants here," said Jeff Obrecht, a Wyoming Game & Fish Department information officer. "Goshen County, around Torrington, is No. 1, while Sheridan in the north central would rank No. 2. Decent spring moisture should equate to reasonable nesting and brood rearing success, but it is just too early to tell. On the one hand we have had good moisture, but it has been on the cool side. It only takes one bad weather event at the wrong time to wipe out a bunch of pluses."

It comes as no surprise that Obrecht would point to Sheridan and Goshen counties as, traditionally the pair account for fully 70 percent of the state's annual kill. Other areas that hold promise are the walk-in areas on the Greybull, Big Horn and Powder rivers, but how much depends largely on what happens once the hatch came off.

Many other river valleys hold decent numbers of birds but access can be downright impossible. I have a friend who ranches near Thermopolis. His river bottom and that of his neighbors supports a huntable population, but even he can't gain permission to hunt longtails. "Hunt all the deer you want but leave the chickens be," his neighbors say. That, by the way, is a familiar refrain. We know of several ranchers who have no problem letting us hunt, just not pheasants.

A Wyoming non-resident annual upland game bird license costs $61; daily, $16; youth annual, $40. Seasons, daily bag and possession limits vary widely according to hunt zones; check the current regulations closely. Pheasant season runs November and December.

COLORADO

Colorado's northeastern plains, Phillips and Yuma counties top the list, with Kit Carson, Washington and Logan not far behind. "In a word, optimistic," said Tyler Baskfield, a public information specialist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "Spring precipitation has been real good, should provide good nesting cover and insects for brood rearing. In addition, we just didn't get the sort of winter storms that knock bird populations down. That combined with decent numbers going into the breeding/nesting season should give us a pretty good hatch. Of course hailstorms can wipe out a whole county's hatch in a heartbeat, but overall things are looking good."

Phillips County sports a flying ringneck rooster on its seal and boasts some 30,000 of the 160,000 acres enrolled statewide in Colorado's Walk-In Access program. It also boasts one of the country's leading Pheasant Forever Chapters in terms of actual on the ground, good for pheasants, and good for pheasant hunters completed projects. The group has planted hundreds of thousands of trees, millions of feet of weed barrier and purchased outright several sections (640 acres per) of land and each year raises thousands for CDOW to encourage farmers to convert field corners to pheasant habitat.

"The standard CDOW offer of only $1.30 per acre for Walk-In-Access is fair but on the low side, not always enough to encourage farmers to enroll in the program, let alone set-aside acreage for pheasant habitat. With chapter help, the agency can now offer up to $10 per acre, a considerable enticement, comparatively speaking," said a chapter spokesman. The group also annually plants food plots for the birds on chapter-owned lands, all of which are available for hunting. For maps and further information, go online to www.coloradopheasants.net.

Pheasant season runs Nov. 20 through Jan. 16 in units east of I-25 and Nov. 20 through Jan. 2, in units west of I-25. Non-resident license costs $40.25 annually or $5.25 per day. Daily bag limit is three cocks, nine in possession.

UTAH

Utah's pheasant habitat is in sharp decline, and the outlook grim at best. Once again, little noticeable improvement in pheasant populations is expected.

Habitat losses due to urban sprawl, changes in agricultural practices and a persistent drought have combined to take a huge toll on pheasant futures. Predictions run from poor to fair. Sanpete County in the Central Region, Duchesne and Uintah counties in the Northeast and the area between Price and Green River in the Southeast should provide the best of what's left.

Information about specific Division of Wildlife Resources upland game and waterfowl management areas open to pheasant hunting is contained in a brochure titled, "Your DWR Lands." The brochure is available at

www.wildlife.utah.gov/uplandgame. A more comprehensive overview of DWR lands is found in the booklet titled, "Access to Wildlife Lands in Utah," available for purchase at any DWR office.

Utah pheasant seasons vary in length from a week to a month. Most occur during November though hunters need to check closely to see what is open and when. Regardless, the daily bag limit is two cocks daily, four in possession. The non-resident license fee is $45 annually.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Web sites and telephone numbers for state departments: Idaho --

www.fishandgame.id.gov, (208) 334-3700; Montana --

www.fwp.state.mt.us, (406) 444-2535; Wyoming --

www.gf.state.wy.us, (307) 777-4600; Colorado,

www.wildlife.state.co.us; Utah,

www.wildlife.utah.gov, (801)

538-4700.

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