Badger State Pheasant Forecast

Thanks to a mostly mild winter, the number of wild roosters should be sky high this season. However, there are big changes looming on the horizon. (October 2007)

Photo by Mark Kayser.

Wisconsin pheasant hunters should enjoy a good season again this year, but there is a dark cloud on the horizon because a good portion of land currently protected by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) could be growing corn instead of roosters in the near future.

Each year, the Department of Natural Resources sends a questionnaire to a random sample of 10,000 small-game hunters. Hunter numbers and harvest estimates for each species are extrapolated from the questionnaires returned. For 2005-06, 3,008 hunters returned the survey, for a response rate of 30 percent.

That year, an estimated 74,465 pheasant hunters bagged 347,285 ringnecks. DNR wildlife technician Brian Buenzow, who works in Rock and Green counties, called 2005 a "stellar" year for pheasants because of excellent production.

One conclusion to draw from harvest statistics is that wild pheasants make up most of the bag, since there are only about 50,000 pheasants released on public hunting grounds. That should be a revelation for hunters who claim there are no wild birds left in the state.

One alarming trend, however, is that hunter numbers have declined in four of the past five years. There is still plenty of interest in pheasants, although small-game hunter numbers in general have continued to decline as the population ages and fewer youngsters take up the sport. From 2004 to 2005, Wisconsin lost 3.5 percent of its small-game hunters. We can't sustain that level of decline for very long without beginning to feel some serious impacts on license revenues and support of the conservation community.

However, it appears the more serious hunters stayed with the sport, because the total number of days spent in the field increased by 16 percent. Pheasant hunters spent an average of nine days afield and bagged .53 birds per outing. The top counties that year were Dane, Fond du Lac and Dodge.

The 2006-07 survey was still in progress as of this writing, but wildlife managers thought the pheasant kill was probably down a bit from 2005. A sampling of comments from DNR biologists suggests last year was a pretty good one for pheasant hunting.

"Overall, hunter success seemed to be average to above average, with many hunters experiencing a high level of satisfaction in the hunting opportunities and availability of birds in the field," said Eric Lobner, who until recently managed the Glacial Habitat Restoration Area in Dodge, Fond du Lac, Winnebago and Columbia counties. "As in years past, we again conducted parking lot surveys on the opening day of the hunting season and had high usage rates on the Glacial HRA properties, with many hunters commenting on seeing good numbers of birds."

Last year, an increased number of hunters headed for Public Hunting Grounds (PHGs) throughout the state, probably because they expected to see more stocked birds, and they were right.

"We saw a lot of pressure in stocked areas last fall," said Missy Sparrow, DNR private lands biologist for southeast Wisconsin. "Word was out that we were stocking more birds, and they wanted to take advantage of that."

In Green and Rock counties, Brian Buenzow said hunters had to work harder for their roosters last season.

"We had some untimely rains last year in May that I think hurt production a little," Buenzow said. "We saw a lot of smaller broods late in the summer, so there was good reproductive effort, but later nestings don't net as many birds. Still, there was a good population for hunting."

In far western Wisconsin, where considerable habitat work has been done in the past decade, hunters capitalized on higher bird numbers and lack of snow.

"The 2006 hunt was the best we've had yet," said DNR private lands biologist Harvey Halvorsen, who works in St. Croix and Pierce counties. "We saw hunters afield throughout the season because of very low or non-existent snows."

WINTER'S IMPACT

Winter severity has plenty to do with pheasant survival. Fortunately for ringnecks, there was little snow anywhere in Wisconsin until mid-February. Pheasants will roost in snow, but they need to be able to scratch down through it to reach buried weed seeds and other food if they are to make it through the winter in good condition. Hens may survive the winter, but if they lack vigor and body fat reserves, they are less likely to produce large, healthy broods.

In southern Wisconsin, Brian Buenzow said he didn't think last winter hurt pheasants much at all. The late snow could have hurt the area's more fragile quail but not pheasants.

Eric Lobner said there was likely very little natural mortality, because crop fields were openly exposed most of the winter, providing food through normally hard times.

"Even though heavier snow cover did come in late winter, the birds were likely in good physical condition to handle the snow depths and cold conditions," Lobner said.

One real indication of winter's impact is the number of pheasants seen in spring. In southeast Wisconsin, birds were everywhere this spring.

"I saw and had reports of many birds on the roadsides in late winter and early spring," Missy Sparrow said. "Several were dead (most likely killed by cars), but many were alive."

Even in Pierce and St. Croix counties, which are about as far north as there is any pheasant management, the winter had a negligible impact.

"Our Winter Severity Index (WSI) was 63," said Harvey Halvorsen. "That's the third mild winter in a row. There were no ice storms, and no lingering snow depths over 6 inches, so our birds came through just fine."

SPRING COUNTS

Biologists get a better idea of how many pheasants made it through the winter by conducting surveys of crowing roosters in spring. Like ruffed grouse drumming counts, these are done by driving predetermined transects and stopping every half-mile to note the number of birds crowing. Crowing counts provide an index of the pheasant population, not an accurate tally of actual numbers.

Although the results had not yet been tabulated, Scott Hull said early reports suggested 2007 crowing counts were up over 2006. Last year, observers heard 2.9 crows per square mile, compared with 3.2 in 2005. The number of crowing roosters heard is multiplied by an as

sumed sex ratio of 2.5 hens per rooster. The estimated number of hens (7.25 last year) per square mile is above the 20-year average of 6.0.

Crowing counts in 2007 were up 30 to 40 percent in western Wisconsin, according to Harvey Halvorsen. Missy Sparrow said crow counts in Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties were about the same as last year. In Green and Rock counties, Brian Buenzow reported that spring crowing counts were similar to last year near Beloit and Monroe, and a little higher near Evansville. Overall, he thought the counts would come out about the same as last year. He did caution that late-spring weather might have hurt production somewhat.

"Pheasant broods need warm, dry weather when they first hatch," Buenzow said. "The cool, wet weather we had in early June might have hurt us a little. Some areas north of Madison and toward Fond du Lac got 4 or 5 inches of rain in one storm."

As long as they are brief and chicks have a chance to dry out afterward, thunderstorms probably don't hurt pheasants too much, unless they are accompanied by golf ball-sized hail, Buenzow said. But all-day rain and temperatures in the 50s for several days on end can take their toll on young chicks.

HABITAT VS. CROPLAND

For the past 50 years or so, Wisconsin farmers have juggled croplands and set-aside land in an ongoing tug-of-war between the demands of agricultural markets and those of conservation efforts. With corn prices at an all-time high, many farmers are plowing under prairie planted in the last decade for wildlife habitat. This trend, more than anything else, may very well have a devastating effect on wild pheasant numbers.

When former CRP land is cropped, the loss of habitat hurts in several ways. First, hens must use second-rate nesting cover. Next, the broods that do hatch are more vulnerable in narrow strips of cover than they are in dense stands of prairie grass, which also harbor many more nutrition-rich insects, which are a critical element in the diet of young birds. Finally, essential winter habitat is lost, leaving birds more exposed to storms and predators. CRP land is less important as winter cover in areas where large cattail marshes and shrub-carr brush are available. In some places, though, prairie grass provides the only winter cover. When it's removed, the birds are pretty well doomed.

Fortunately for conservation, Congress did not allow farmers to get out of CRP contracts early without paying a penalty, so most of those who have current contracts will keep them until they expire in the next few years. Last spring, Scott Hull alerted pheasant biologists across the state to the significant changes coming in CRP.

"The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) has released data on the 2008-2010 CRP re-enrollment process," Hull said. "In Wisconsin, there were 236,809 acres eligible for re-enrollment. To date, CRP contract holders holding 119,443 acres (50.4 percent) have paid their compliance fee and have indicated they are willing to consider re-enrolling or extending their contracts. Acres with compliance fee payments do not represent final approval to stay in the program, however. The actual number of acres re-enrolled will likely go down even further after mandatory field checks."

Including the loss of CRP acres on the landscape after the 2007 re-enrollment process, Wisconsin will likely lose 180,000 to 200,000 acres of CRP between now and 2010, Hull said.

"At the peak of CRP enrollment in the mid-90s, Wisconsin had upward of 700,000 acres enrolled in CRP. It's too early to say what the impact will be on pheasants, and it's likely there will be a delay in any impact as we gradually lose CRP."

In the pheasant-rich southeast, the impact may be a few years away, but it is coming, according to Missy Sparrow.

"We will be losing some key grasslands to CRP removal due to high corn prices and landowner frustrations with the Farm Services Administration," Sparrow said. "An important grass field in a PHG area is being pulled out so the landowner can lease it to a local dog trainer. It is also being pulled out of CRP. The landowner is getting upset over rule changes in CRP since FSA has been in charge of it. He felt it was not worth the effort to keep it. I have heard this frustration with many landowners. I suspect most will go into corn. Some of that property is in the heart of one of our wild release areas, so it may have a big impact on wild pheasant populations in that area."

In western Wisconsin, where there is less pheasant habitat to begin with, CRP provides critical nesting cover. There, too, farmers are plowing grassland to plant crops.

"CRP is starting to come out," Harvey Halvorsen said. "Contracts are not being offered for re-enrollment, or only for a year or two. I've definitely noted former nest-cover areas plowed under this spring."

As of this writing, the 2007 Farm Bill was being debated in Congress. Any sportsman or sportswoman who cares about the future of pheasant hunting should to take a few minutes to call, write or e-mail their congressman to encourage him or her to support conservation programs in the Farm Bill, because whatever comes out of Congress this year will dictate which way conservation programs go in the years ahead.

HUNTING OUTLOOK

Despite the gloomy outlook for the federal alphabet programs, pheasant hunting opportunities should be good in Wisconsin again this year, both for wild birds and on put-and-take public hunting areas.

Pheasant production at the state game farm at Poynette has been restored to former levels after several years of reduced production. Again, this year, the game farm will release about 50,000 pheasants on PHGs throughout the season. Hunters can check with local DNR service centers for a schedule of release dates and locations.

The Poynette game farm also provides another 50,000 day-old pheasant chicks to hunt clubs and other groups that raise and release them on private land open to public hunting. Wildlife managers can provide a list of clubs that raise birds, but hunters must contact them to learn when and where they will be released.

Many PHGs throughout southern and eastern Wisconsin will be stocked with birds this season. Visit www.dnr.wi.gov and search for "pheasant hunting" to find maps of most WAs and PHGs, along with a list of these areas that may be stocked with pheasants, and other pertinent information. Signs indicate state-owned and leased property boundaries, so be sure to stay off adjacent private land, and pick up any litter you see -- even if it's not yours.

The larger areas include: Killsnake in Calumet County, Tom Lawin in Chippewa County, Pine Island in Columbia County, Badfish Creek and Mazomanie in Dane County, Horicon and Mud Lake in Dodge County, Eldorado in Fond du Lac County, Brooklyn in Green County, White River in Green Lake County, Avoca in Iowa County, Jefferson Marsh, Lake Mills and Waterloo in Jefferson County, Yellowstone in Lafayette County, Evansville and Footeville in Rock County, Kettle Moraine in Sheboygan County, Walworth and Waukesha counties, Kickapoo Valley Reserve in Vernon County, Theresa, in Washin

gton County and Scuppernong in Waukesha County.

The Richard Bong Wildlife Area in Kenosha County has special regulations for pheasant hunting and is stocked daily throughout the season. This is a popular destination, and hunter numbers are regulated, so call ahead for details, (262) 878-5600. A daily fee is charged and birds of either sex are legal game at Bong.

Hunters will find plenty of wild-bird hunting opportunities as well. Top spots include private land in the Glacial Habitat Restoration Area in east-central Wisconsin and some of the larger WAs mentioned above. Brian Buenzow said that at times, the ratio of stocked to wild birds taken at places like Evansville or Footeville WAs is 50/50, indicating good wild bird production. In Walworth County, Bloomfield, Turtle Creek and Turtle Valley WAs all hold wild pheasants, but they have extensive wetlands and can be difficult to hunt. In Sheboygan County, Sheboygan Marsh has good numbers of wild birds.

Many landowners are rather protective of "their" birds for the first few weeks of the season. However, by November -- and certainly after deer season -- it is easier to gain permission to hunt on private land.

To hunt private land, contact landowners well in advance of the season and don't count on hunting opening weekend. As a rule, the farther west you go, the easier it is to get permission to hunt. Thanks to the CRP buildup in western Wisconsin through the 1990s and early 2000s, there are now roosters in areas where they did not exist a few years ago.

If you are willing to work at it, there are great bird-hunting opportunities in Wisconsin. Get out there and enjoy it while you can!

(Editor's Note: The author's 60-minute video, Hunting Dog Video Magazine, contains exciting footage on training and hunting with a variety of pointing and flushing breeds. To order, send $19.95, plus $4.50 shipping, to Outdoor Videos, Dept. GF-10, P.O. Box 433, Grafton, WI 53024. Wisconsin residents need to add 5 percent state and appropriate county sales tax. This video, along with other videos and several wild-game cookbooks, is also available on the author's Web site: www.dansmalloutdoors.com.)

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