For bird hunters in the West, one bird is both one of the most sought after and increasingly elusive: the ring-necked pheasant. The elusive quality comes in part from the birds' natural survival instinct but in even larger part because of declining populations.
One oft-repeated phase echoes across the fields of Idaho each fall and early winter among hunters: "There ain't as many pheasants as there used to be."
Pheasant populations have been in decline since the 1980s. Tom Hemker, state habitat manager at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said 30 years ago, roughly 400,000 pheasants were harvested in Idaho. Last year, that number was 100,000.
Sal Palazzolo, private lands and farm bill program manager at Fish and Game, said the largest issue attributed to the decline of pheasants is change of habitat. Decades ago, farm fields were smaller--as was equipment--and flood irrigation meant there were more unworked areas for pheasants. Additionally, the introduction of more pesticides has decreased the number of bugs available for young pheasants to eat to reach maturity.
As hunters had less success each season, some turned to stocked hunts offered at nine wildlife management areas open to hunting and fishing. Tired of watching roosters from the other side of a "No Trespassing" sign, I decided to try my luck at the CJ Strike Wildlife Management Area last fall.
I bought a WMA pheasant hunting permit for $23, which allowed me to bag up to six roosters, with a maximum of two per day.
I had high expectations, but when I showed up at the WMA, the parking lot was nearly empty, which seemed strange for a Saturday in the middle of hunting season. Maybe I was just lucky. Unfortunately, I was just alone--no other hunters and no birds either. For more than six hours, I combed the tall grasses and marsh land and did not see a single pheasant. Not one.
It turns out my experience is not uncommon.
"If you can talk to the game manager to find out what day they drop the birds, WMAs are worthwhile. But any other days, they are nearly worthless," said Nick Jangula, an avid hunter from the New Plymouth area.
The Fish and Game website publishes the total number of birds that will be dropped in a WMA, as well as the week of the drop--yet the exact day remains an unknown. In the Southwest Region of the state--including CJ Strike, Fort Boise, Mountor and Payette River WMAs--Fish and Game typically will drop 9,600 pheasants.
That's a whole lot of pheasants, yet I hadn't seen a bird. I was confused.
This year, I called Fish and Game to establish a plan.
"The birds don't last long," Hemker said. "They are either harvested, fly across to private land or to places that hunters can't reach them."
Basically the only good day for hunting the WMA is the day of or the day after the stocking has occurred.
I wondered: Why then are the WMAs are so popular with hunters?
"As the state grows more and more urbanized, these places, WMAs, become more popular," Hemker said, adding that the state is no longer composed of small towns where people know each other and hunting on private property is not a problem.
"Many hunters have limited access to private land," Hemker said. "The WMAs provide access points and game to be hunted."
Since the birds didn't face any danger from my dismal luck or equally poor shooting skills, I was curious if stocked birds could possibly repopulate the areas near the WMAs.
Ryan Storm, regional manager for Pheasants Forever--a national organization focused on the conservation of pheasants, quail and other wildlife--forwarded me a memo from Howard Vincent, CEO of Pheasants Forever, about the release of farm-raised game birds for repopulation purposes.
Using research done in Idaho during an eight-month test period, the survival rate of pen-raised female pheasants was only 4 percent, while the rate for wild-reared birds was near 40 percent. Vincent called farm-raised birds "an inappropriate management tool for increasing pheasant numbers."
"I don't hunt them personally, don't know how they are operated ... I spend my time doing what I know works for restoring wildlife populations and providing new opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts of Idaho," Storm said.
So what's becoming of all the birds not shot? Are they just coyote food? How efficient is the stocking program? Is WMA hunting all that's left for a landless pheasant seeker? Stocking WMAs is basically a pay-to-kill relationship.
On the other hand, what is the difference between stocking pheasants and stocking fish in a river? Both are put in place for recreational purposes.
"It is kind of like the fish-stocking programs that we have. We put fish in Parkcenter pond to be caught, not to populate ... And concerning the WMAs, we only stock them with roosters," said Hemker.
After a little verbal dancing, I asked Hemker when the pheasants are dropped at the CJ Strike WMA.
"Honestly, I don't know," he said.
Pressing him, I asked how I might come across the dates.
"Cell phones ... and keeping an eye out for stocking trucks."
Maybe that is why the parking lot was empty.