Sunday, September 25, 2016

New state plan for pheasant propagation is geared to young hunters

Stepping gingerly through the weedy edges of a corn-stubble field, your shotgun is at port arms, your eyes and ears  tightly focused on the waving grasses 10 yards ahead.
Suddenly, inches from your boot erupts a startling explosion of movement, sound and color. In an instant that seems to take forever, the pheasant is already 10 yards above you and cornering toward the rear. You resist the temptation to shoot too soon, holding the gun steady as you pivot to the right, then raise the barrel, pull the butt to your shoulder, release the safety and fire.
A miss -- pattern still too tight. Leveling its wings, the rooster begins to build speed. You lower the muzzle dropping it barely below the flurry of motion until the bead and the bird seem to connect and ... Blast!
The ring-necked pheasant crumbles and drops onto the corn stubble.
The most exciting hunt in Pennsylvania isn’t for deer, bear, turkey or elk. With or without dogs, a ring-necked pheasant hunt can be a thrill ride to be remembered -- when they’re there. When the birds aren’t there it’s a long walk carrying a heavy gun.
This year, the state Game Commission is testing a new pheasant plan combining an alternative means of egg acquisition with existing public-private land use agreements, education and an expanded junior-hunter season. Bob Boyd, wildlife services division chief, said the goal is to give young hunters the same pheasant-induced adrenaline rush experienced by hunters that came before them.
“These days when hunter numbers are going down, hunter recruitment activities are very important,” said Boyd. “We feel this pheasant propagation program is very important for hunters, particularly junior hunters.”
Teens and young adults who’ve occasionally seen the distinctive fowl with the white-banded neck may not be aware that the species is not native to North America. Europeans learned of pheasants through international commerce, initially with Black Sea traders and later with their Southeast Asian counterparts. In the 1700s, European colonists brought ringnecks to North America, and later in that century American hunters and hunting groups began importing and stocking the birds.
Near the turn of the 20th century, many states including Pennsylvania were stocking pheasants extensively in a semi-successful attempt to create a pheasant-hunting culture. For decades it worked reasonably well. Hunters loved the excitement, but biologists knew that natural reproduction was spotty and sparse, if occurring at all, and the culprit wasn’t chemical pollution or energy extraction.
“Habitat loss,” said Boyd. “And not just from [urban] sprawl. Farming techniques are much different now than they were a few decades ago. Land is extensively farmed now with very little edge growth or wasted seed. Look at a corn stubble field. There’s nothing there.”
Pennsylvania and other states tried to slow the depletion trend by hatching and releasing more pheasants, and by 1983 the Game Commission was stocking some 425,200 birds for an artificial put-and-take hunt. Despite the continuing interest of license buyers, the pheasant program had dwindled to about 100,00 birds by 2005 at a cost to hunters of $2.7 million per year. The number of pheasants and hunters dropped while the program’s costs increased.
“We’re in the midst of trying to cut the cost of the program and increase the numbers [of pheasants] we put out there,” said Boyd. “One way we’re trying this year is the experimental purchase of day-old chicks.”
Buying peeps from a private propagator saves the agency the expense of feeding the flock during winter. With savings of about 10 percent earned through outsourcing the baby birds, the agency this year has released 220,000 roosters plus 20,000 hens plucked from breeder stock. All of the birds were stocked on huntable public land.
The Game Commission sells a small number of its day-old peeps to private propagators, who raise them for sale to sportsmen’s clubs and other organizations. This year, Cheryl and Joe Fallat converted part of their property near Jeannette, Westmoreland County, into a pheasant farm. With a $20,000 bank loan for posts, fencing, netting, heaters, feed and more including 1,800 day-old peeps purchased from the Game Commission, they’re reviving a family business that provided mature ringnecks to regional gun clubs for distribution on huntable land, often on the morning of the hunt.
“We know they’re not reproducing out there. We know [the pheasants] are going to get shot,” said Cheryl Fallat, “and we know we probably won’t even break even this year. But raising pheasants was such a project and such a joy for my father, I’m excited about taking this on and selling them to the sports clubs this fall.”
The expanded pheasant youth hunt runs Oct. 8-15 for eligible junior hunters with or without a hunting license. Roosters only in management units 2A, 2C, 4C, 4E, 5A and 5B. Male and female pheasants are legal in all other WMUs (no open season in Wild Pheasant Recovery Areas). Limit 2 daily, 6 in possession.
The regular pheasant seasons are staggered and open Oct. 22-Nov. 26, Dec. 12-24 and Dec. 26-Feb. 28. Check the Hunting and Trapping Digest for details.

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