Some upland bird hunters like their pheasants wild.
Others don’t care where the rock-star game birds originate as long as they’re in the field and ready to fly when the Eastern Washington season opens on Saturday.
Pen-raised pheasants have always played a role, more or less, in the region’s wing-shooting. Hunters pay a price for pheasant stocking – and they’re likely to be paying a higher price for the chance to shoot wild birds in the future.
Pheasant habitat costs money, too.
In the 1940s, Washington had several state-operated game farms producing pheasants for sportsmen whose ranks were mushrooming with military servicemen returning from war.
In 1947, the Deer Park Game Farm produced about 16,000 pheasants for release in Spokane, Lincoln, Grant and Douglas counties.
That’s 30 percent more than will be released in all of Eastern Washington this year.
The state was weaning East Side hunters from pen-raised birds through the 1970s when habitat was abundant from the brushy draws and eyebrows of the Palouse to the Grant County croplands where weeds and cover flourished in circle irrigation corners.
Since their introduction to the United States from China in 1881, pheasants have always ridden the coattails of the American farmer. Food and year-round cover were the ticket. But as crop producers became more efficient, the coattails got thinner.
Releasing birds is an agricultural concept that made sense to farmers. Raising pheasants for release has always seemed easier and more reasonable than leaving brush along the draws and in the eyebrows of steep hills, especially if you’re in the business of feeding the world, not to mention your family.
The federally-funded Conservation Reserve Program helped pay farmers to idle some croplands and leave more habitat for wildlife. CRP worked fabulously for pheasants in the Dakotas. While it helped in many areas of Eastern Washington, CRP also resulted in vast monocultures of crested wheat grass that became wastelands for pheasants.
The state closed its last Eastern Washington bird farm in 1981. The cost of raising a single pheasant was $8-$10 by the 1990s. That’s better than the costs of $15-$23 per rooster today, but the return rates to hunters have always been poor.
The last surveys on ringneck releases in Eastern Washington showed return rates around 30 percent. That means roughly 70 percent of roosters served to fatten hawks and coyotes.
The survival rate of pen-raised birds beyond the hunting season is virtually nil, surveys found.
Washington wildlife biologists were pointing out in the 80s that for every $100 poured into raising pheasants, hunters might bag three or four roosters. The same money plowed into good habitat could help entire broods of pheasants, and other wildlife, survive year after year.
Bird farming was revived in 1996 when state Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, muscled passage of a bill that required hunters to buy a $10 Pheasant Enhancement Stamp for hunting the birds in Eastern Washington.
The stamp was required in addition to the $15 hunting license and $10 upland bird permit at that time. Wildlife officials did not propose the bill, but supported it because much of the money originally was intended for habitat restoration.
In final negotiations, however, lawmakers earmarked a whopping 80 percent of the stamp money for raising and releasing pen-raised roosters.
But the mid-90s also found the agency flush with federal money earmarked for programs to improve agricultural lands for wildlife. Grants funded 19 field workers, mostly in small towns across the state, who interacted with farmers and ranchers. They offered welcome assistance in signing up farmers for conservation programs in return for posting lands with “feel free to hunt” or “hunting by written permission” signs.
The money faded in the 2000s and so did the field staff until 2012, when another federal grant was won to boost field staff again.
Out of that funding came the “reserve to hunt” program that debuted last year. Hunters can go online and compete with other hunters to reserve enrolled lands for two-day hunting periods. Participating landowners are paid $3-$4 an acre for land that ranges from excellent habitat to vast swaths of fallow fields. The payments are meant to encourage habitat enhancement.
Federal funding already has fallen off for this program, leaving the future uncertain, although hunters who’ve been surveyed by telephone this summer get the hint.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department is polling hunters on their willingness to pay for hunting access. Brian Calkins, game bird program manager in Olympia, said the agency may try to get the legislature to authorize charging a fee for the reserve to hunt program.
Meanwhile, the pheasant release program, with birds purchased from private game farms in Idaho, continues at 23 sites in Eastern Washington, but at reduced levels.
Despite the non-toxic shot requirement enacted in 2011, these public land sites have continued to be popular, especially with hunters who don’t have access to hunt private land.
The first releases of the year occurred at all sites before the Sept. 22-23 youth upland bird season. Two additional releases are scheduled at the sites during the general pheasant season.
Only about half the sites will be stocked with birds for Saturday’s opener, Calkins said.
The better habitat areas most likely to have a portion of wild birds, such as the Corps of Engineers plots along the Snake River, will not be stocked before the opener.
The department doesn’t announce exactly when the releases will occur.
“We want people to just go out and hunt,” Calkins said, noting that in the past some hunters have followed the trucks transporting the birds to the sites.
In 2008, about $270,000 was spent to release birds on the East Side and about $32,000 went to habitat.
That year, with legislative approval, Washington Fish and Wildlife managers approved a phased-in schedule to reduce the number of birds planted until the spending equaled about 50 percent for birds and 50 percent for habitat.
Last year, 11,350 rooster pheasants were released at the sites, down from 11,820 in 2012 and down from more than 20,000 birds in the initial years.
This year the schedule calls for releasing 10,240 pheasants.
“That’s about as low as we plan to go,” Calkins said.
It’s the new normal.
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