Hunting Wisconsin's Pheasants

All indications are that pheasant numbers will be higher this fall than in the past. You rooster chasers had better take advantage of it while you can.

By Dan Small

Anyone who spent any time outdoors in Wisconsin's pheasant country last spring and didn't hear at least a few roosters crowing wasn't paying much attention. Rooster pheasants were singing their hearts out all across the landscape, a good indication that plenty of birds made it through the winter. That, coupled with even average brood production, should translate into good pheasant hunting this fall.

That will be welcome news to our state's pheasant hunters, who have seen their sport ride a roller coaster in recent years. Bird numbers increased steadily for about a decade, then crashed two years ago after a hard winter. Last year, thanks mainly to a mild winter in 2001, pheasant numbers swung upward, and they appear headed up again this year, thanks to another somewhat mild winter.

Wisconsin's pheasant program is a complex mix of habitat management, spring and summer surveys, and stocking of game-farm birds on public hunting grounds. Let's get a statewide overview of the pheasant program, then take a closer look at this year's hunting opportunities in the state's prime pheasant areas.

Pheasant hunting last year was at least as good as in 2001, if not somewhat improved, says Keith Warnke, Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife ecologist. In 2001, the most recent year for which harvest estimates were available as of this writing, 78,788 Wisconsin hunters took an estimated 226,644 pheasants.

In a severe winter with a lot of snow, pheasants tend to group up, making them more vulnerable to predation. That did not happen last winter, when the lack of snow cover allowed them to find food just about everywhere. A lot of grassland cover that would normally have been flattened by snow remained standing this spring, providing excellent nesting habitat.

Photo by Tom Evans

Preliminary spring crowing count reports indicated increases over last year. Warnke says brood production last year was substantially better than in 2001. He was hoping for dry weather in late May and June to help this year's chicks survive.

"Pheasants are mainly an annual crop," Warnke says. "Good overwinter survival and dry poult-hatching weather in June can have large impacts on the fall forecast."

Another factor that can have a major impact on pheasant production is the amount of habitat available for nesting and brood cover. A new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up period in May should mean more net acres of pheasant cover this fall and next breeding season. Meanwhile, Warnke points out, pheasant stamp dollars, which pay for habitat improvement, are having a tremendous impact on local pheasant populations.

"Pheasants really don't move far during the year," Warnke says. "They winter in tough, dense cover like switchgrass or cattail marsh and crow, breed, nest, feed and raise broods within only about two miles of the winter cover. To be effective, habitat management must be focused within a two-mile radius from known winter cover. Several partner groups like Pheasants Forever and Wings Over Wisconsin are working very closely with their members and DNR staff to most effectively implement habitat projects like that."

For the past dozen years or so, DNR biologists have raised pheasants from wild Iowa brood stock at the state game farm in Poynette. These birds were released at 28 sites around the state in an experiment to determine whether stocking wild birds was necessary in areas with good habitat. On each site, 350 hens and 150 roosters were released in each of three years.

Don Bates, supervisor of the state game farm, says wild pheasant numbers improved on about half the release sites, but that might have been due as much to site selection as to the stocking of wild birds.

"If you pick marginal release sites, you get marginal results," Bates says.

With the exception of one site in Walworth County, where two more years of releases are scheduled, the program is winding down. The current breeder flock consists of birds that are at least 7 years old, but no decision has been made to replace the aging breeders with new wild birds from Iowa.

"It's probably easier and cheaper to use wild birds that are out there and just improve the habitat than it is to go to Iowa and get more birds," says Bates. "The final decision has not been made on that, but realistically looking at our budgets, I don't see us forking out $50,000 to buy more Iowa pheasants. It's not real high on the priority list right now."

The state game farm also raises birds for stocking on public hunting grounds (PHGs) and gives day-old chicks (DOCs) to sportsmen's clubs to be raised and released. Bates says budget cuts have forced him to reduce the number of birds raised this year for the PHG program.

"The game farm has been asked to take a $90,000 cut this year, so we will raise 40,000 birds instead of 60,000 for PHG stocking," Bates says.

Bates anticipates he will be able to stock the same 78 PHGs this season as last year, but instead of stocking some of them twice weekly, he will likely stock them all once per week. Last season, some PHGs were stocked in December, but all stocking may be completed by Thanksgiving this year.

The DOC program is more cost-effective, so it will continue at last year's level of 55,000 birds. In this program, day-old rooster chicks are raised by some 90 clubs for release on private lands open to hunting or on PHGs. Hunters can obtain a list of participating clubs and contacts at DNR service centers or from the state game farm, (608) 635-8120. The contacts will then provide hunters with the names of local landowners in areas where birds are slated for release. Hunters must still contact landowners for permission to hunt.

The state game farm programs are funded from hunting license revenues, so additional cuts are possible in the next several years if the state's current fiscal crisis is not resolved. Sportsmen had mixed reactions to the proposed hikes in license fees, which the state Legislature was still debating as of this writing. If license fees do not increase, the state game farm itself may be shut down and the leased PHG program may be dropped.

In light of possible budget cuts, the four new pheasant management teams funded by Pheasants Forever beginning last year may help soften the blow on pheasant hunting opportunities. Team leaders located in Iowa, Rock, Polk/St. Croix and Walworth counties are available to

assist landowners with habitat development. For information, check the Web site,, or call (877) 773-2070.

Winnebago, Dodge, Fond du Lac and Green Lake counties were the top pheasant counties back in the 1950s, and they are still the top counties today. A blend of farmland, grassland, brush and marsh provides the all-season habitat necessary for pheasants to thrive. Much of the land formerly in CRP has reverted to active farming, but the Glacial Habitat Restoration Area (GHRA) has added over 12,000 acres of managed grassland habitat that is open to hunting.

Last fall, hunters had good success with wild birds on the GHRA properties, and prospects look even brighter for this season, according to DNR biologist Eric Lobner, who reports a dramatic increase in the number of pheasants on spring crowing surveys in certain areas.

"It is remarkable how closely tied to habitat the birds are," Lobner says. "In those areas where we have increased the amount of habitat, we are seeing the greatest increase in spring crowing. I also think this increase can be attributed to the lack of snow cover, as the food was readily available regardless of the cold temperatures."

Lobner reports that research currently under way suggests predators can really hurt pheasant numbers. The way to reduce this impact, he says, is to eliminate tall trees, which provide dens for raccoons and perches for hawks in grassland habitat.

New properties have been brought into the GHRA program that will add considerable habitat to the project and provide exceptional hunting opportunities, Lobner says. Some are still in the development stage, while others are starting to provide great habitat. For more information on GHRA properties, check the GHRA Web site, at, or contact Brenda Hill, (920) 485-3007; Lobner, (920) 485-3026; or Tim Lizotte, (920) 424-7886.

Pending budget cuts are likely to affect the GHRA program, which depends heavily on limited-term employees (LTEs).

"We only have three permanent staff, who manage well over 180 properties, so we are already spread thin," Lobner warns. "If we are forced to eliminate our LTEs, we will be very difficult to reach and will have to turn people away, leaving the wildlife to suffer."

Lobner says cuts to the Stewardship program will be especially noticeable.

"All of our acquisitions for the past several years have relied heavily on Stewardship as a main funding source, with a large variety of external partners stepping up to the plate to make the acquisitions happen," he says. "Wings Over Wisconsin and Pheasants Forever are two examples of conservation organizations that have matched their members' dollars to assist the GHRA in the acquisition phase of the program. We have also matched Stewardship dollars against such things as North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants from the federal government and the Wetland Reserve Program to stretch those dollars that much farther, so you can readily see the multiplier effect that messing with this program will have. Without a place for hunters to go, it truly doesn't matter how many birds we find in our spring crowing surveys."

A number of large PHGs in these counties will be stocked with game-farm birds, but with fewer birds available, hunting on these properties will be best early in the season. They include: Horicon Marsh, Shaw Marsh and Mud Lake (Dodge County); Eldorado Marsh (Fond du Lac County); Grand River and White River marshes (Green Lake County); and Mud Lake, Pine Island and French's Creek (Columbia County).

GHRA properties average 200 acres and are open to public hunting. They are listed in a brochure available at DNR service centers in the region. Landowners are more likely to grant permission to hunt later in the season when hunting pressure subsides. Birds from nearby PHGs often seek refuge on private land, so late-season prospects there are usually good.

In the southeast, hunting was fair to good last fall, there were more reports of pheasant broods last summer than ever before and spring crowing counts were up in most areas, according to DNR biologist Missy Sparrow. With little or no impact from last winter, prospects were excellent for good production this year.

With the reduction in game-farm birds and the loss of some smaller PHGs, the best prospects for early-season hunting include the larger PHGs, like Sheboygan Marsh (Sheboygan County), Vernon Marsh (Waukesha County), both the southern and northern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, and Bong Recreation Area (Kenosha County). These will all be stocked with game-farm birds. Bong, where a daily fee is charged, is the only PHG that receives daily stockings throughout the season. For more information, call (262) 878-5600.

Wild-bird hunting should improve this season on the many small habitat-restoration projects on private lands throughout Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties. Some of these were funded by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, while others were developed using state money. Sparrow encourages hunters to contact private landowners, because hunting these properties is by permission only.

"Please ask for permission before hunting on private property," she says. "I have had lots of reports from private landowners about people trespassing. Many of those landowners will not allow anyone to hunt on their land as a result of too many violators."

Sparrow also weighs in on the impacts of future budget cuts. The possible loss of the state game farm would cause increased pressure on wild birds, she says.

"We would probably lose most of the leased public hunting grounds as well," Sparrow says. "Most of the habitat work on public lands would be drastically decreased or eliminated altogether. Unfortunately, the future of our wildlife management program does not look good if we do not get a fee increase."

Hunters who had access to private land had good success last season. DNR Lower Rock Team supervisor Doug Fendry and biologist Mike Foy say pheasants were plentiful, thanks to a mild winter followed by a warm, dry spring. Many of those wild birds survived the hunting season and came through the second mild winter in good shape. Crowing counts were as high as Foy has seen in years in some areas.

"We're looking to have a second year like last year, with another mild winter and a good spring for brood production," Foy says.

Future production should also be good, assuming continued mild winters, especially in grassland planted this spring in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which gives landowners the option of a 15-year commitment or a permanent easement. CREP lands in Dane, Iowa, Lafayette and Green counties should total 10,000 acres in the next few years. Much of that land will provide good fall hunting cover this year.

PHGs that will receive birds include the following: Brooklyn, Deansville, Badfish Creek, Mazomanie, Lodi Marsh and Goose Lake (Dane County); Blue River (Grant County); Albany (Green County); Avoca and Blackhawk (Iowa County); Lake Mills and Waterloo (Jefferson County); Yellowstone (Lafayette County); Pine River (Richland County); Footville and Evansville (Rock County); and LaFarge (Vernon County). A big parcel was added to the Waterloo PHG last year.

There is likely to be a deer hunting season similar to last year's, beginning in late October and running through the entire pheasant season in the portions of Dane, Iowa, Sauk and Richland counties where chronic wasting disease has been found, so Fendry advises hunters to check the deer hunting regulations and be sure to wear hunter orange if you hunt during this period.

Foy advises hunters to take advantage of the good pheasant numbers this year, because they may not last.

"Aldo Leopold said you can't stockpile wildlife," Foy reminds us. "Pheasant hunting is a classic example of this. We might have even more birds next year, but you can't count on it, so I'd strike while the iron is hot."

Hunters in the west-central counties enjoyed good success last season, according to DNR biologist Harvey Halvorsen. Roosters were available throughout the region, and there was plenty of standing corn on opening weekend. Hunter numbers were up slightly from previous years, but on 19 state and federal properties, Halvorsen noted only 40 hunters on opening day, so there is definitely room for more hunters.

There was no snow through December, and temperatures averaged 34 degrees, making for perfect hunting conditions through the end of the season. Halvorsen says birds remained well distributed all winter, with few losses.

Spring crow count surveys were up across the region, and St. Croix County's total was the highest since the survey began back in 1982. Renewed CRP contracts from last year and new sign-ups should add to the 50,000 acres of land in CRP in St. Croix and Pierce counties. Halvorsen says fall hunting prospects for wild birds are excellent.

Private lands offer the best hunting here, but as elsewhere, it is imperative to contact landowners before hunting.

"I called several individuals and received permission to hunt, but they didn't want large groups and were concerned about shooting near homes," Halvorsen says. "It is tougher to get permission, as development and hobby farms are increasing every year."

There are no releases of game-farm birds in St. Croix and Piece counties, but birds are released at Dunnville Bottoms and Muddy Creek PHGs in Dunn County.

With wild bird numbers up, stocked bird numbers reduced and the threat of eliminating the put-and-take program altogether, this fall may mark a turning point in Wisconsin's pheasant hunting.

(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 add 5 percent state and appropriate county sales tax.)

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