The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Less than two weeks after the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) received a shipment of 500 pheasant hatchlings in June, “approximately 470″ of the chicks were found dead in their pens.
The dead hatchlings represented more than one-third of the pheasants the agency was planning on releasing for the fall pheasant hunts in Emery and Carbon counties.
The chicks at the arid Desert Lake Waterfowl Management Area in Emery County were young enough they needed to be fed and watered by a DWR employee. When that employee went on vacation, the agency said another employee didn’t know which weekends to care for the birds.
“As a result of the miscommunication, the pheasant chicks were not fed or watered for three days, resulting in their deaths,” said DWR spokeswoman Faith Jolley in an emailed statement.
“It is very unfortunate that this incident occurred, and we have taken steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Jolley added.
Advocates for wild upland birds, like Annelyse Biblehimer of Pheasants Forever, says farm-raised pheasants are vulnerable when released, even when they’re properly taken care of. Biblehimer worked on a pheasant farm before she became a range and wildlife conservationist in eastern Utah.
“When you stock them for hunting, rarely any of them survive to make it for breeding,” she said of her work on the pheasant farm.
Utah, like many states, struggles to keep the pheasant hunting tradition alive by relying on pen-raised birds because so much of the upland game habitat is being swallowed up by developments.
But the release of the pen-raised birds is just a stop gap measure that may even be negatively affecting the health of the wild bird populations still remaining.
The Utah Investigative Journalism Project filed a request for documentation into the agency’s communications or investigation of the incident in which the chicks died of thirst and starvation and was told there were no such records.
In an e-mail copied also to seven DWR employees, the agency explained that no reports were created and no employees communicated with each other by email about the incident.
“We do not have protocols requiring a formal report in these scenarios,” Jolley said. She noted the employees worked in the same building and through “internal discussions” about the incident came up with a shared calendar and schedule to prevent it from happening in the future.
An invoice provided through a records request shows the state paid $775 for 500 ringnecked pheasants on June 15, along with $310 for 200 Chukars, another game bird, from a local ranch and hatchery.
Jolley said the state is looking to replace the pheasants lost to prepare for fall hunts.
“This successful program has been in place for the last decade,” Jolley said.
The pheasant hunt generally runs during the end of November and into the first week of December, with special youth hunts hosted every year.
It’s unknown how many wild pheasants live in Utah as DWR stopped tracking them 20 years ago because their habitat was disappearing.
Dan Potts is an avid outdoorsman, fisher, hunter and member of DWR’s Regional Advisory Committee for the Central Region of the state. He says wild pheasants have long been pushed out of most corners of Utah. Pheasants and other uplands game thrived previously in cornfields and farmlands.
“So all these agricultural lands have been usurped by developments of one kind or another, and that’s where the pheasant went,” Potts said.
He says the state has invested in youth hunts with farm-raised birds that help get the youth excited about the hunt. They also give older hunters like himself the chance to assist, while taking their pheasant dogs out and reliving their own childhood hunting memories.
“It’s beneficial to their bottom line because they got old farts like me with bird dogs who want to go someplace to [hunt pheasants] and not pay a fortune,” Potts said, in reference to various commercial pheasant hunting farms.
The farm-raised birds are also generally popular with hunts because they’re fed and fattened on corn and taste better than the wild birds Potts refers to as “lean, mean machines.”
He’s a strong supporter of DWR’s pheasant hunts and their management but he also acknowledges that wild pheasants are better for the overall upland habitats.
But those birds face long odds and have so far been “pushed and pushed until they have nowhere to go.”
‘Good for the herd’
For Biblehimer with Pheasants Forever, a national advocacy group for wild pheasants, releasing pen-raised birds that can’t cope in the wild does nothing to help dwindling populations of wild birds.
“When they get released out in the wild they don’t have the skills or the know-how to thrive out there,” Biblehimer said.
Jared Wiklund, spokesman for Pheasants Forever, echoed the point and added that pen-raised birds may be easy prey that bring predators into areas affecting other bird species. He says their release may have other negative effects on wild populations as well.
“The release of thousands of pen-raised birds over many years may be diminishing the ‘wildness’ of the wild stock,” Wiklund said in an emailed statement.
His organization has tracked the lost populations that have disappeared along with the vanishing grassland prairies that used to stretch across the nation like an ocean. Seventy percent of those lands have gone since 1966, and with them 40% of the grassland bird populations. Their demise is linked closely with the disappearance of ranch and grazing lands across the West.
Pheasants Forever hosts farm biologists across the country that help ranchers and farmers interested in making simple changes with their properties that help support their agricultural interests and wild bird populations at the same time. Biblehimer, for example, works primarily with sage grouse in the Uinta Basin, where she advises ranchers on practices like evenly spreading out water facilities for livestock across their property. This benefits upland birds and also gets cows out on the range so they evenly use it, she said, instead of overgrazing and degrading areas around the water.
Wiklund says this point goes to the group’s slogan that “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” with strong grasslands supporting ranchers and pheasants both — not to mention “pollinators, water quality, big game species and climate resiliency.”
Nationally, Wiklund says their organization, along with more than two dozen other conservation and sportsmen’s groups, are putting their support behind the North American Grasslands Conservation Act — sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and others — that would create a voluntary program to conserve imperiled grasslands and sagebrush ecosystems with $300 million in funding.
Locally, Wiklund says Pheasants Forever has entered into an agreement to hire a habitat specialist position for Utah that will help with pheasant habitat restoration objectives.
Jolley said that the state has worked to support pheasant population growth, pointing to the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative that has helped protect over 27,000 acres beneficial to pheasants. The state also maintains an ongoing Upland Game Management Plan updated every decade, with the most recent plan approved in June.
That plan outlines proposals to work with nonprofit, federal and state agencies to support wild populations. But it also notes that “pheasant populations in Utah are not currently monitored,” which complicates the goal of increasing their numbers. The plan notes that surveys previously provided data to the public on the hunt outlook, but “loss of habitat in survey areas reduced the effectiveness of field surveys and they were removed from work plans in 2001.”
While Wiklund says Pheasants Forever is excited to partner with Utah on habitat conservation, their organization does not endorse pen-raised birds under any circumstances.
“During the past 50 years, a colossal amount of money has been spent on supplemental stocking programs,” Wiklund said. “If these dollars would have been invested in habitat restoration, hundreds of species of wildlife in addition to upland birds would have benefited.”