It’s likely to be a long journey, but the days of good pheasant hunting in Eastern Washington could return.
As the 2009 season opens this weekend, hunters are discovering a second year of poor pheasant production in much of the region.
“We know we didn’t get to this spot overnight, and we also know that reversing the trend is going to take some time,” said Mick Cope, state Department of Fish and Wildlife upland bird program manager.
“That said, having a quality hunting experience in Washington is not out of sight.”
Without a lot of fanfare, the agency is working to improve pheasant habitat in Washington’s best bird areas, including portions of the southeast counties of Whitman, Walla Walla, Columbia and Garfield.
Upland bird experts from the Midwest consulted in 2003 urged the agency to focus pheasant enhancement projects in southeast Washington areas with more than 14 inches of annual rainfall.
A state Partnerships for Pheasants Program makes annual cash payments to landowners who plant and maintain high-quality habitat and allow public hunting.
The lands have to be in southeast Washington. The commitment must be for at least five years. Feel Free to Hunt or Register to Hunt public access is required. The land must support the desired habitat without irrigation.
The agency wants to study whether planting forbs and legumes in strips or blocks within Conservation Reserve Program lands increases the insects that feed upland birds.
Working with CRP lands and other federal farm programs is critical, he added.
“We estimate there are almost 400,000 acres in CRP within our pheasant focus area and that makes it one of the most important tools we have to work with landowners to improve pheasant habitat on a large enough scale to make a difference,” he said.
Working with Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association to retain at least 12 inches of wheat stubble after harvest can help pheasants by increasing broad-leaf forbs, he said.
Legislation passed by state lawmakers gives the department another tool.
The Eastern Washington Pheasant Enhancement Program was created more than 10 years ago to improve hunting east of the Cascades. It is maintained by a portion of the small-game license fee.
Eighty percent of the money was stipulated to pay for releasing pheasants on lands open for public access, with the rest available as grants to individuals, clubs and state or federal agencies.
House Bill 1778 removed that stipulation, meaning a higher percentage of the money can be spent on habitat projects.
In 2008, about $270,000 was spent to release birds in Eastern Washington and about $32,000 went to habitat.
“That difference is staggering,” said Kraig Paulson, Washington field representative for Pheasants Forever. “We’re pleased that going forward there will be increased emphasis on the habitat component….
“ Habitat restoration and enhancement should be the chief focus in improving pheasant populations and thus hunting opportunities over the long run.”
The Legislature also directed the Department of Fish and Wildlife to spend up to $100,000 outside of southeast Washington in Grant, Franklin and Adams counties.