Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wild Pheasant Numbers Down

By Ben Moyer Pittsburgh Post Gazette

A plan to reintroduce wild, reproducing populations of pheasants in Pennsylvania is at a make-or-break point.

On a recent Saturday, chilly gusts blew across the Washington County hills. A cold wind may also be buffeting a decade-long effort to re-establish wild ring-necked pheasants in Western Pennsylvania.

On that windy day 13 volunteers and two representatives of the Pennsylvania Game Commission assembled at the California Hill Gun Club for a pheasant flushing survey of the Pike Run Wild Pheasant Recovery Area, 250 square miles of hills folded between bends in the Monongahela River.

The Pike Run project, with roots reaching back to 1998, jump started efforts to rejuvenate Pennsylvania's wild pheasant populations, resulting in three other pheasant recovery areas in Somerset, Montour and Dauphin counties. No pheasant hunting is permitted within the areas, and no artificially reared pheasants are stocked. Instead, hundreds of wild ringnecks trapped in South Dakota and Montana have been released on the projects over three-year periods. The last release at Pike Run was in 2008.

With the Pike Run volunteers were 10 trusted bird dogs -- English Setters, German shorthaired Pointers, Springer Spaniels, a Gordon Setter and one Italian Spinone.

Pheasants Forever member and volunteer Dave Sukel of Robinson brought his German shorthaired Pointer, Viper, out for the day.

"I'm a pheasant hunter and I support what the Game Commission and its partners are trying to do here. But we're also getting in some dog time," Sukel said.

Game Commission wildlife biologist Larry Crespo and biologist aide Dan Wilson divided the volunteers and dogs into two groups, each assigned to comb prime habitat and flush pheasants.

"Count every cockbird and hen you flush," explained Crespo. "We want to establish a sex ratio. Then, next month when we do our crowing counts, we'll use that ratio to determine the number of hens out there on the project."

Crespo said the target for success at Pike Run and the other areas is 10 hen pheasants per square mile. If and when that target is reached, the recovery areas may be opened to pheasant hunting on some regulated basis.

Based on one day's flush rate, Pike Run seems a long way from the 10-hen threshold. In four hours, Crespo's volunteers flushed two cockbirds, three hens and one pheasant of unknown sex. Wilson's group flushed nine birds, but Crespo was unsure of the sex ratio when contacted later.

One year earlier, the 2010 survey at Pike Run flushed 73 pheasants, with a sex ratio of two hens per cock. Crespo said the low flush count in 2011 could be due to timing, or it could simply reflect a low population.

"We did the survey a little later this year because we kept getting bad weather on the days originally scheduled," he said. "Birds may be starting to split up and set up nest territories, which may explain the low flush numbers."

Still, the presence of pheasants suggests at least some reproductive success.

"I would think that the birds we're flushing now were born here," Crespo said. "Three years from the last release, more than likely they're native-born birds."

Jose Taracido, farmland habitat supervisor with California University of Pennsylvania, has been involved with the Pike Run Recovery Area since 1998 when cooperating groups (Partners for Fish and Wildlife) began working with landowners to improve farmland habitat.

Taracido is hopeful, but realistic, about the future of Pike Run's wild pheasants.

"That 3 feet of snow we had last year really hurt them here," Taracido said. "Right after that, in March, we went out to do some habitat work and we found a dozen dead birds. But we've learned a lot here that can help the other areas across the state. No matter where we try this, from now on it's going to go better."

"It is looking kind of grim for numbers [at Pike Run] here," Crespo told the volunteers. "We're getting close to a point where we have to make a decision about this project."

According to Crespo, biologists will prepare a report with recommendations for the Board of Game Commissioners, who will make the decision about Pike Run's fate.

"We've been thinking ahead about what to do," Crespo said, during a subsequent interview. "If this [Pike Run] is a success, we have to consider if we're going to regulate hunting by lottery, have a one-bird limit or some limitation on hunting this new resource. If it is not a success, there are other options that involve stocking game-farm birds where landowners agree."

While not opposed to opening Pike Run to hunting, Taracido is hoping for a conservative approach. "My preference would be to make hunting for cockbirds only," he said. "At least we'd protect whatever reproduction we have going."

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