Sunday, October 18, 2015

PA Game Commission Aims To See How Many Stocked Birds Go To Hunters

You might have heard a certain football coach in Pittsburgh say “the standard is the standard” a time or two.
In this case, there is no standard.
A number of states stock ring-necked pheasants for hunters. Few, apparently, have any idea how many get harvested. There are no nationwide guidelines for what constitutes a successful stocking program, either.
Rather, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said Jared Wiklund, spokesman for Pheasants Forever.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, for example, stocks 15,000 pheasants a year. How many go home in a hunter's hands is a mystery.
“We don't have any data on that. Unfortunately, there's no good way for us to say how many of the birds we release are harvested,” said wildlife communications specialist John Windau.
Similarly, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation annually stocks 30,000 adult birds and gives another 40,000 chicks to sportsmen's clubs to raise and distribute on lands open to public hunting.
It put radio collars on some of those birds in 2009 and monitored them in two areas. Harvest rates ranged from 21 to 31 percent, said spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach.
But whether that's typical, or even enough to make stocking worthwhile, are questions without answers. The agency doesn't know whether harvest rates have changed over time, nor does it have a “threshold harvest rate” by which it validates its program, Rosenbach said.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is hoping — with the help of hunters — to get better answers here.
“We do have a reward band study going on where we're going to be measuring harvest rates on our pheasants this fall,” said Bob Boyd, chief of the commission's propagation division. “We did this in 1998, and we're going to repeat it that this year.”
That earlier study found hunters took one of every two birds released, with success better on public land than private, Boyd said. The commission made changes to its stocking program as a result. This will be the first look to see whether they boosted harvest rates, he added.
Roughly 5,500 leg-banded pheasants will be released, 1,000 of them good for cash rewards. Hunters who take any — the statewide season begins Saturday, with a two-bird daily limit through Nov. 28 — are being encouraged to say so using the bands' toll-free number, commission biometrician Josh Johnson said.
He said he's hoping for cooperation, and it's easy to see why. The stakes are comparatively high.
Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection requires anyone wanting to chase pheasants to buy a pheasant stamp. That money — and only that money — pays for birds.
“The number of pheasants that are purchased is directly correlated to the number of pheasant tags sold in Connecticut during the previous season, the revenue derived from pheasant hunters and the price paid for each pheasant,” reads the agency's explanation of the program.
This year, the agency sold 106 fewer stamps than last year, while the price of birds increased. The result is hunters will be getting 14,935 birds, or 650 fewer than last fall.
The Game Commission's program, by comparison, is gargantuan, costly and shared by all.
The commission raises 200,000 pheasants annually, at an estimated cost of about $4 million. Fewer than 10 percent of license buyers will hunt them, yet all will subsidize the program, said Dennis Duza, who retired from the commission as its northcentral regional supervisor a few years ago.
That's not fair, he said. Speaking to commissioners at their recent meeting, he suggested the agency — which has asked lawmakers to increase licenses fees for the first time since 1999 — also ask for a pheasant stamp to support stockings.
At least two commissioners aren't interested.
Tim Layton of Windber said many youngsters get into hunting through small game. He said his son still is involved in the sport only because he took a pheasant incidentally, he said. If he had been required to have a pheasant stamp, he never would have pulled the trigger and might not even be a hunter now, Layton said.
“I understand the cost of the program. We talk about this all the time. We know that it's, for lack of a better term, a burden on the commission,” Layton said.
“But it's one of those things we can give back to hunters, and if by a result of that we can turn our youth into long-term small-game hunters, I mean, that brings a lot to the table.”
Commissioner Brian Hoover admitted the commission spends a lot on ringnecks. But he said it also spends a “tremendous amount” on wildlife habitat benefiting a variety of species.
“So what do we do next?” he asked. “Do we then charge the hunter for a buck stamp, or a buck tag, on top of his license because we spend millions of dollars on habitat improvement for that? Do we do the same thing for grouse hunters? Where does it stop?”
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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