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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tough times for upland birds

Pheasant hunters lose ground to productive farming

Pheasant hunter Dan Hoke takes a rooster from his German shorthair pointer after the shot and retrieve. (Rich Landers)
Alan Thomas Vancouver Columbian

Two decades of change have been at work on the landscape of Eastern Washington and upland bird populations – especially pheasants – are the losers.

Big farms grow crops to the shoulders of state highways. Windmills cover hillsides. Leaky irrigation systems have been improved. And largely gone are the brushy ditches, fence rows, weedy patches and too-steep-to-farm eyebrows that once dotted the landscape with habitat for birds, particularly pheasants.

Where there once was an idle field in the Yakima Valley, now there’s a crop of corn to produce ethanol. A weedy ridge towering over the Snake River now is laced with roads to access a group of wind turbines.

Eastern Washington’s 2013 pheasant harvest was among the lowest on record.

Brian Calkins, small-game manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, is hopeful the 2014 season will see an improvement.

“Based on winter and spring weather conditions, we are optimistic that our pheasant harvest will rebound,” Calkins told Pheasants Forever, a nationwide conservation group. “Adding to our habitat base, several thousand acres of permanent cover were seeded with forbs (broad leaf plants) in southeast Washington this year specifically to improve brood rearing habitat for pheasants.”

Eastern Washington also had a mild winter, relatively dry spring and dry summer, which likely will help with wild pheasant production

Put-and-take hunting at pheasant release sites on state and federal lands seem to be emphasized in prospect reports by the Fish and Wildlife Department even though the agency has been gradually reducing the number of roosters released for hunters.

About 10,200 roosters will be released this fall in several eastside counties. District biologists for the Department of Fish and Wildlife mention the pheasant-release program prominently in their hunting prospects for 2014.

Here is a summary of those hunting prospects:

• Asotin-Garfield- Columbia-Walla Walla counties – Pheasant populations appear to have stabilized after two decades of decline.

Release sites include Rice Bar, Willow, Mill Creek and Hollebeke habitat management units of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Asotin and Wooten wildlife areas of the state.

• Lincoln-Spokane- Whitman counties – Crow counts (population index surveys) for pheasants in 2014 were 7 percent worse than the four-year average.

Weather was conducive to chick survival, so wild production should bump up.

Pheasants will be released at Fishtrap Lake near Sprague, at John Henley HMU on the Whitman County side downstream of Little Goose Dam and at Central Ferry HMU on the east side of Highway 127 at the Central Ferry bridge.

Good populations of quail have been observed in south Spokane and Whitman.

• Yakima-Kittitas counties – The pheasant harvest in 2013 was among the lowest in recent history. There are few wild pheasants outside the Yakama Indian Nation lands. The trend on the Yakama nation lands also is on the decline as idle land that provided habitat is converted to crops, especially grain farming or corn for ethanol.

Public hunting is allowed on portions of the Yakama Indian Nation. A tribal permit is required. Info:

Birds will be released at Sunnyside Wildlife Area.

• Benton-Franklin counties – The 2013 harvest was down 13 percent from 2012 despite an increase in number of hunters.

Pheasants will be released at the Hope Valley unit of the Sunnyside-Snake River Wildlife Area plus the Corps’ Big Flat and Lost Island habitat management units along the Snake River.

• Grant County – The state’s top pheasant-harvest county offers good prospects for wild birds in the Desert unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area complex. A mix of wild and released roosters will be found in the lower Crab Creek, Gloyd Seeps, Quincy and Dry Falls units.