(Missoula Current) This weekend Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is holding its Youth Pheasant and Waterfowl Weekend in an effort to recruit young hunters. While Montana hunters support such opportunities, most say FWP's pen-raised pheasant hunt is bad for both the kids and the birds.
The Youth Pheasant Weekend is intended to allow 12- to 15-year-olds who’ve completed hunter education to hunt with an adult over a couple of days when they don’t have to compete with other hunters.
The problem, hunters say, is not the youth event but the fact that FWP is paying the Montana State Prison - through a division called Montana Correctional Enterprises - to put prisoners to work raising the birds for release. And FWP is using more than $1 million of federal Pittman-Robertson money and sportsmen’s license dollars to do it.
Against the will of many Montana hunters, the 2021 Legislature passed House Bill 637, a hodgepodge of items proposed by the FWP Directors Office, that included spending about $1 million on a pheasant stocking program.
This is now the second year of the program, and its popularity among hunters hasn’t improved. Past attempts in Montana and those in other states have shown that stocking pen-raised pheasants isn’t cost-effective and doesn’t provide a good experience for young hunters.
Multiple efforts were made to get comment from FWP spokesman Greg Lemon but they were ignored.
Last year, FWP did a “soft-release” of 2,700 pheasants, but the program hadn’t had much time after the bill was signed to get going. So the agency ended up releasing immature birds that wouldn’t flush from the ground.
Former FWP biologist Jeff Herbert said it didn’t teach kids how to be good hunters.
“Some friends observed the release at Lake Helena last year. The birds were poorly feathered and didn’t know any better. Some flew onto the road and were getting run over,” Herbert said. “Some folks in the gun-dog club who were mentoring said a number of the birds were getting sluiced on the ground, so we’re not instilling the hunting ethics and responsibilities in young kids.”
The prisoners have had a little more time this year, but that doesn’t mean the next batch of birds are going to provide any better experience for kids.
Walker Conyngham, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers in Missoula, said FWP director Hank Worsech said there’s no science telling him not to do it. But a scientific review of pheasant-rearing programs in several states found most artificially reared birds die within a few weeks of release and the main cause of the high mortality rate is predation, partly because they don’t know how to act in the wild.
FWP released its pheasants a week ago so it’s unlikely that many remain for kids to hunt this weekend.
“We hunted a (wildlife management area) that had birds on it last year. Saw 150 birds in the middle of a stubble field that were flying around like a flock of geese. They weren’t in good habitat - it was habitat that I assume looked like what they were raised in,” Conyngham said.
Herbert said FWP has already tried stocking pheasants and it was unsuccessful. After about a decade of raising pheasants near Warm Springs, FWP shut the pheasant farm down in the 1980’s because it was deemed ineffective and too costly.
“I remember stories from Bob Green who managed the facility. They used to just laugh, saying ‘We’d release these birds and it was just a dinner bell for anything that thought the birds were good to eat,” Herbert said. “The only way to do it is release them right in front of the gun and that’s essentially a shooting preserve. This takes wildlife management areas, which are supposed to show the best of what we do, and turns them into a de facto shooting preserve.”
Learning good ethics is a big part of learning to hunt, and canned hunts don’t teach that. Plopping a bunch of young birds in a field for kids to shoot doesn’t teach anything about fair chase, which says animals shouldn’t be put at a disadvantage.
“It sends young hunters the wrong message: habitat doesn’t matter, just put out some more birds. It’s a one-and-done kind of thing. Throw a few pheasants out there and kids are going to maybe get some shots and then it’s done,” said Greg Munther, a Missoula hunter and retired Forest Service biologist.
Conyngham thinks most kids want the real deal rather than an artificial hunt. Similar to fishing in a stocked kiddie pond, a rigged hunt tends to thrill only little kids. And if they do kill a bird, it sets kids up to expect they can walk out and bag a bird in a few hours. They’re learning how to shoot but not how to hunt ethically.
“I question whether it’s worth it. It took me a while to get my first bird - it was a wild bird out on the Front - but it was certainly worth it,” Conyngham said.
Many question why the Montana state prison was chosen to raise the pheasants. FWP proposed the deal after the state prison lost a 30-year contract to milk cows for Darigold. The Department of Corrections lost $1.5 million of funding for its work program, which Joliet Republican Seth Berglee made up for using FWP money with House Bill 637.
“It’s creating a make-work project for the prison by robbing dollars from the wildlife management programs,” said Munther. “It’s really stealing from the sportsmen. It’s been proven over and over again to be a waste of dollars. I testified one time saying pen-raised pheasants are kind of like putting leghorn chickens out in the field and expecting them to be there when the hunters arrive. They have an extremely low survival rate and harvest rate and an extremely high cost per bird.”
If FWP wanted to stock pheasants, Herbert said, there should have been a bidding process or economic analysis as to whether a private farm could do it more economically.
Multiple studies show that the money would be better spent on preserving and improving good habitat for wild pheasants that are already here. Those birds have learned how to deal with predators and survive Montana’s weather.
Even so, the recent drought has stress pheasants in some regions so they need all the help they can get. Good habitat with water, food and cover gives them an edge. Studies show that translocation of wild birds is much more effective if areas need to be stocked.
Munther said there are so many better options for providing kids with high-quality opportunities. Years ago, he unsuccessfully tried to get FWP to designate a few Block Management areas just for youth throughout the season.
Block management areas are private lands where landowners have contracted with FWP to allow access to public hunters. Munther said that could help parents who can’t take their kids out during the Youth Weekend. Plus, pheasants tend to prefer the fields and prairie of central and eastern Montana so western Montana isn’t a pheasant hub. So there are no pheasant opportunities for kids in Region 2.
“So the parents who couldn’t make the opening weekend could take their kids out after school at times when they could. I think landowners who normally don’t want to get involved in block management would if it was for youth,” Munther said.
During a public meeting with Worsech in Missoula a few weeks ago, Conyngham raised the issue of pen-raised pheasants being a waste of FWP money and asked Worsech if he would ask legislators during the upcoming session to discontinue the program if an assessment showed it was ineffective. Worsech said no because he didn’t know if it was ineffective.
“Will it work? I have no idea,” Worsech said at the Sept. 7 meeting.
FWP isn’t doing any monitoring or assessment of the program. They aren’t tracking hunter interest; they aren’t tagging birds to find how many hunters take; and they aren’t attaching radio transmitters to estimate how many might be killed by predators. Not collecting data ensures the program can continue because there’s no proof either way, which frustrates hunters.
“There are better ways to improve hunter recruitment that throwing out a bunch of tame birds. I’d love to see some more accountability. This is going on for the next five years at this point,” Conyngham said.
As a FWP biologist specializing in migratory birds, Herbert was active in trying to recruit bird hunters and saw a lot of improvements over the years in the social science of hunter recruitment, including being able to analyze license data.
“We developed an assessment based upon age groups: at what age are we bringing them in and where are they dropping out,” Herbert said. “The big problem with this current effort: It sounds good, but there’s nothing here that’s based on any kind of data that we have in hand if someone wanted to do an assessment before you spend $1 million."
Hebert added, "FWP Special Programs director Deb O’Niel told someone that their success metric was smiles on faces. I thought ‘Bullshit, you don’t spend a million dollars to see six smiles if you talk to 10 kids.’ Performance metrics and measures of success are missing from this whole thing. It amazes me that there’s nothing here for say a legislative analyst to look at and speak to whether this is successful or not.”
Pheasants have been released in the following wildlife management areas: Region 1: North Shore WMA; Foys Bend Fisheries Conservation Area Region 3: Canyon Ferry WMA, Lake Helena WMA Region 4: Freezout Lake WMA Region 5: Grant Marsh WMA, Yellowstone WMA Region 6: Vandalia WMA, Cree Crossing WMA, Sleeping Buffalo WMA, Fresno WMA, Rookery WMA Region 7: Isaac Homestead WMA
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.