Can prison-farmed pheasants save hunting?
A spring day in the Bitterroot Valley’s Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge brings a cacophony of birdsong. The bugling of sandhill cranes, the familiar honking of Canadian geese, and the throaty rattles of red-winged blackbirds all come easily to discerning ears. But one voice seems to rise above the rest.
The raspy kaw of the male pheasant, or rooster, tends to betray the bird before its presence is obvious to the human eye. The pheasant itself is often concealed by tall grass as its raucous mating call resonates, but once spotted it is a sight to behold.
The gaudy Eurasian native is festooned in various shades of copper. Its back is uniformly patterned with white chevrons, and its improbably long tail feathers are sharply tapered at their ends. The head is an iridescent shade of green, and the neck is bordered by a stark ring of white that gives the bird its common name: the ring-necked pheasant.
It’s an arresting sight to be sure, and one that, according to some, is made even more impressive by the uniquely wild status that these well-adorned avians enjoy in the Big Sky State.
“If you’re a pheasant, and you can make it in Montana, you have something going for yourself,” said Thomas Baumeister, an avid pheasant hunter and vice chair of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “There’s something special about the genetics of the birds we have here. There’s some learned behavior. If you can make it in Montana, kudos for you, because this is not an Iowa corn field.”
Baumeister, a former wildlife biologist who spent 20 years working at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, can wax eloquently about the attributes of Montana’s wild pheasants. But these days he spends more time bemoaning what he calls a “short-sighted” effort by his former employer to recruit new hunters by pen-raising pheasants at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge for later release on state-owned wildlife management areas.
“Montana is one of the few states in the country that still has a healthy wild pheasant population,” Baumeister said. “Once you open that can of worms with pen-raised birds at the kind of scale that the department is fixing to do this, there’s no going back.”
In the spring of 2021, the Montana Legislature passed a bill that authorized FWP to use $1 million worth of state and federal revenue for a pheasant-stocking program that could ultimately release up to 50,000 pen-reared pheasants onto “suitable and eligible state-owned lands” every fall.
While the bill’s language didn’t specify the Legislature’s motivation for creating a pheasant stocking program, FWP says it’s part of a broader strategy to recruit and retain new hunters — an initiative known as R3.
R3 stands for recruitment, retention and reactivation. It’s a strategy employed by state wildlife agencies across the country as they seek to bring new hunters into the fold and re-engage with hunters who have become inactive. The R3 mission is important because hunters create a critical revenue stream for state agencies, funding all sorts of conservation efforts through the purchase of hunting licenses and excise taxes on firearms and ammunition. When active hunters drop off and new hunter recruitment fails to take root, important revenue is lost.
FWP officials say upland and migratory bird hunter numbers are declining in Montana, and the agency hopes that stocking pen-raised pheasants on select wildlife management areas in the days leading up to special youth seasons could help solve the problem.
“We’re excited to give our youth hunters this new opportunity for success,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech in the department’s first press release referencing the plan. “As we expand this program in the coming years, it will encourage hunter participation and recruitment across the state.”
The $1 million appropriation for pen-raised pheasants was an add-on to an end-of-session bill that addressed a slew of wildlife management issues and drew the ire of sportsmen’s groups.
FWP recently wrapped up its draft Environmental Assessment of the pheasant-rearing project and says operations at the state prison in Deer Lodge are nearly complete, but the plan has faced suspicion since the agency first began to unveil its details.
Montana conservation groups including Pheasants Forever, BHA, and the Montana Wildlife Federation are adamantly opposed.
They say the plan represents a threat to the health of wild pheasant populations and a troubling departure from fair chase ethics. They would rather see the department use available funds to create more suitable pheasant habitat or increase public access to habitat that already exists.
In recent months, a new concern has emerged as a widespread outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is impacting more wild birds in Montana than ever before.
In late April, the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game, which oversees a similar pheasant-stocking program, was forced to euthanize 1,200 breeding-age pheasants after they were exposed to HPAI by wild turkeys that died from the disease near one of the agency’s two pheasant-breeding facilities.
Critics, like Baumeister, fear that FWP’s new pheasant-stocking program, which is staffed by prison inmates, could exacerbate the spread of HPAI, contributing to current or future outbreaks.
Deb O’Neil, special programs director for FWP, is overseeing the agency’s efforts to stock pheasants on state-managed lands. While she acknowledges the opposition, she said there is support for the program as well.
“Support is coming from dog training groups,” she said. “Additionally, just the general public. I’ve gotten lots of emails after the release last year, and one of them was of this 15-year-old daughter of this guy, and she was sitting there with three roosters, and the smile on her face was bigger than anything. He couldn’t thank us enough for this program. So there’s a lot of support.”
Of the 218 comments submitted to FWP and published on the agency’s website, 44 signaled support for the program, while the remaining 174 voiced opposition.
According to FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon, the agency released about 2,700 pheasants on state-owned lands last fall, having purchased the birds on the open market because pheasant-rearing operations at the state prison weren’t yet complete at the time. The Montana Fish and Game Commission approved the translocation of those birds onto WMA lands in an August 2021 vote, with the only “no” vote coming from Commissioner Pat Byorth of Bozeman.
Montana used to raise pheasants on state-operated farms decades ago, but those efforts were phased out by 1982. There is still a program administered through FWP’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program that assists landowners in stocking pen-raised pheasants on private property, but that program hasn’t seen much interest in recent years, according to Lemon.
This year, FWP plans to release pheasants being reared at the prison by Montana Correctional Enterprises, a division of the Department of Corrections that trains inmates in a variety of programs.
“We’ve got a little over 1,000 chicks as of Saturday, May 21,” said Ross Wagner, who serves as the agricultural director for Montana Correctional Enterprises, which is headquartered at the Deer Lodge prison. “If it’s approved, they’ll start by the middle of September, coming and getting 18-week-old birds and releasing them on wildlife management areas throughout the state.”
If approved by the Fish and Game Commission at its August meeting, the program eventually aims to release pheasants at Canyon Ferry and Lake Helena Wildlife Management Areas in Region 3, Freezout and Beckman Wildlife Management Areas in Region 4, Grant Marsh and Yellowstone Wildlife Management Areas in Region 5, and Isaac Homestead Wildlife Management Area in Region 7.
O’Neil said most of the opposing comments fielded by the department after it issued its environmental assessment of the program were “irrelevant” to the scope of the assessment.
“They were saying, ‘you shouldn’t spend money on this. You should spend money on habitat,’” she said. “That’s outside of the scope of the EA. We’re not discussing that. The money is not part of the EA, and that’s where we received most of our opposition.”
The money is allocated in section 22 of HB 637. The bill says $500,000 in appropriations will come from state-generated revenue, while the remaining $500,000 will come from the federal government.
O’Neil acknowledged concerns about disease transmission — specifically the potential transmission of avian influenza.
She described a sterile environment at the pheasant farm on the Deer Lodge prison campus, where she said transmissible disease would be hard-pressed to gain a foothold. Nobody is permitted entry into the pheasant-rearing facility before undergoing a foot wash, changing shoes, and changing clothes, she says.
When the eggs are laid, they are harvested and immediately taken indoors. Once they hatch, the chicks are immediately separated from the unhatched eggs, and chickswill remain indoors until nine weeks of age.
“The director and I were out at the prison a few weeks ago to look at it, and it’s pretty impressive,” she said of the program’s biosecurity measures. “The worry for us is not transmitting HPAI to wild birds. The worry is keeping it out, and so the only real risk right now is to the broodstock. They are kept outside in pens. If you saw where they were, there’s really nothing around them. There’s no vegetation around the pens, no water, nowhere for wild birds to roost. It’s pretty barren.”
She said the birds must be tested for HPAI every three months per state livestock regulations, and that every test so far has come back negative.
Marcus Strange is the director of state policy and governmental relations for the Montana Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest conservation organization. Like Baumeister, who worked as the R3 coordinator during his tenure with FWP, Strange has concerns about the pheasant program and doubts it will serve as an effective recruitment tool for kids who are new to hunting.
“The data and the anecdotal evidence both suggest that this is not the most effective way to get kids into hunting,” Strange said. “So then the question becomes, why are we spending this much money to get birds into the field that don’t add to the genetic diversity of the population, that carry significant risk of disease transmission, and have really low survival rates?”
A study published by the journal Wildlife Biology in 2009 appears to bolster Strange’s claim that survival rates of pen-raised pheasants released into wild environments are low.
“In Idaho, pen-reared pheasants released into the same habitat as translocated wild pheasants had significantly lower survival,” the study found. “In fact, wild females were seven times more likely to survive from Spring to 1 October than pen-reared females.”
O’Neil doesn’t challenge those claims, but said the survivability of pen-raised pheasants once the birds are released onto the landscape is not a high priority for FWP.
“If we augment the population, if there’s some carryover from year to year from the pheasants that we release, that’s a bonus in our mind,” she said. “But the point of this program is really recruiting hunters, removing the barriers for young hunters so that they can get interested and stay interested in hunting. There have been studies that have shown that a fish in hand or a bird in hand really increases the likelihood for that young hunter to continue doing this year after year.”
Strange also said pheasant release programs amount to little more than potshotting.
“This is essentially target practice, and that’s why we have gun ranges and shooting clay clubs,” he said. “If we want to go do target practice, let’s do that. If we want to have a true hunting experience, it’s not putting a bird in front of a kid and telling him to pull the trigger.”
He said he’s talked to many upland bird hunters across the state, and none of them support the project.
“I haven’t talked to a single Montana hunter who supports this, and I’ve been talking to folks in eastern Montana and folks in western Montana,” he said. “Nobody thinks this program is a good idea, and that makes me question: Why are we doing this?”
BHA’s Baumeister echoed that claim. “I don’t know of any avid Montana pheasant hunter who is in support of this bill,” he said. “I’m not aware of anyone. They are all shaking their heads.”
Strange also worries about the safety implications of releasing pheasants for young hunters to shoot.
“In one of the reports put out after last year’s release, [FWP] noted that one of the kids had sprayed another party of hunters when he was shooting,” he said. “So, there are some safety concerns, too, when you group that many kids into a small space.”
Pheasants Forever, a nationwide organization that advocates for the conservation of pheasant habitat, added its input with a statement issued in February responding to FWP’s draft environmental assessment.
“MTFWP has proposed to release pen-reared birds in areas with quality habitat and known wild pheasant populations,” the statement reads. “However, there is no formal plan for analysis provided on the impacts released birds have on the displacement of wild pheasants and other wildlife from the increased human disturbances associated with pheasant release sites.”
Baumeister said that he’s seen the results of pheasant-stocking firsthand in Washington state, where a similar program is commonplace, and that those results don’t bode well for the future of wild bird hunting. He said “put-and-take” pheasant hunts can actually deter kids from hunting by creating an artificial experience that yields unrealistic expectations.
“So let’s say that you have a kid that goes out hunting with his grandpa and they see so many of these birds. The kid shoots three times, and he drops a bird. He goes home, and he is excited.” he said. “So now the pheasant trucks are gone, the pen-raised birds are all dead, and the kid says to his grandpa, ‘Let’s go out again.’ So they go out again, but this time, where the hell are all the birds? So what have we done? What have we really done here?”
O’Neil is more optimistic. She hopes that pen-raising and eventually releasing farm-reared pheasants for controlled shooting on state-managed lands will prove a boon for FWP’s hunter-recruitment efforts for years to come.
“Our numbers in migratory bird hunters and upland game bird hunters are declining,” she said. “We want to recruit folks to that effort, to those recreational hunting opportunities, and in order to do that, legislators thought it would be a good idea to stock pheasants.”
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission will decide whether to proceed with fall pheasant releases at its Aug. 25 meeting. A vote had been slated for the commission’s June 23 meeting, but has been postponed due to avian influenza concerns. The public can comment on whether the commission should approve pheasant releases on state-owned land here.