Call it the latest evolution in Pennsylvania pheasant hunting.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission is stocking a different kind of pheasant this fall, in more ways than one. So perhaps it makes sense where and how they’re being stocked is changing, too.
The agency expects to put out roughly 170,000 birds, said Bob Boyd, who heads up the pheasant propagation program. That’s down about 15 percent compared to the 200,000 of the last few years.
Economics are the reason.
The commission had four pheasant farms going into last fall. It kept its own breeders and raised birds from eggs on each, at a cost of nearly $5 million a year.
But to save money, it closed two farms and switched to buying chicks from a commercial breeder near Harrisburg.
“That went off amazingly well. Without a hitch,” Boyd said. “The chicks showed up at our game farms as scheduled, in great condition.”
They’ll look a little different to hunters, though. This year’s pheasants are a “blue” strain, said Brian Hibell, superintendent of the southwest game farm in New Bethlehem, Armstrong County. They’re a slate blue on the back.
Pheasants wearing specs on the Game Commission’s southwest game farm.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
They’re coming along nicely and look good, Hibell said.
The commission put “specs,” or blinders, on some to keep them from pecking at one another. Others got bits, like those used on a horse, for the same reason. Still others were “beaked,” meaning their beaks were trimmed (they grow back).
All those tactics were deemed necessary this year because the commission is raising more birds on less space.
“We’re trying to determine what works best. We want to raise the wildest birds possible,” Hibell said.
“So far, all of those have worked. If you look at the birds, they’re all nicely feathered, with long tails.”
Where those birds are headed is new, too.
In 1998, the commission released just 49 percent of its birds on public land. That’s been trending up, however. Last year, 87 percent of birds went to public lands.
This year it will be 100 percent.
“So we’ve been making progress. We’re just kind of going to seal the deal on that,” Boyd said.
Harvest rates are the reason why.
The commission’s pheasant management plan calls for 60 percent of all birds stocked to be harvested by hunters.
However, it’s not been meeting that objective. A 2015 harvest study showed hunters were taking only about 50 percent of all birds released.
A closer look showed hunters took a higher percentage of birds on public land than private, Boyd noted, so that’s where they’re headed.
Even there, though, there will be changes.
On some game lands, hunters took 60 percent of pheasants stocked in 2015, Boyd said. On others they took none.
Staff looked into why. It turns out a variety of factors influence harvest, Boyd said, from the availability of pheasant habitat to total number of birds stocked to number of stockings to whether birds were stocked near roads or on interior parcels.
So the commission “basically made a turn” in its philosophy, Boyd said. Fourteen marginal properties – 12 game lands and two other public properties — are being eliminated from the stocking list.
“If a game lands isn’t good enough to get stocked all the time, we should stop stocking it,” Boyd said.
Two other game lands and a public property elsewhere are being added to the list.
In all cases, the commission wants to help hunters find birds.
“We have some game lands that are very big, 10,000 acres. But the stocking of pheasants goes on in about a 150-acre area. A little postage stamp in a sense,” Boyd said.
“We have some game lands that are three different parcels. And we only stock one of those.”
To help hunters narrow things down, the commission will soon have on its website a map showing the location of stocking sites. Visitors to the site can zoom in and see exactly where birds are released before they go pheasant hunting.
“So we’re hoping hunters will find some benefit in that,” Boyd said.
The map link is not live yet, but should be soon, said commission communications director Travis Lau.
Oh, and as for cost?
The commission has cut the cost of the pheasant program by about $1 million, Boyd said. By this time next year, after a full year without two game farms, he expects the cost to be down to about $3 million annually.
That’s impressive, said commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County.
“That’s a major change,” he said. “It took some outside the box thinking to get to that.”
Of course, adult hunters who want to pursue pheasants this year are required to first buy a $25 pheasant permit.
Commission officials said sales of the permit are not meant to cover the cost of the stocking program entirely, but merely offset expenses.
As of Aug. 30, the commission had sold 575,649 general hunting licenses. But by that same date, pheasant permit sales were at just 21,692.
That amounts to $542,300 in revenue.
If that all seems low, there’s a belief within the agency – among some at least – that that might change.
“Some folks here believe the pheasant permit is going to be like the second spring turkey permit, where people buy it right before the season starts,” Lau said. “That’s what we’re waiting to see, if there will be a similar spike.”
Lands coming and going to pheasant hunting
Which spots aren’t getting ringnecks this year? And which new ones are?
Here’s the list, broken down by region.
- Jefferson County: state game lands 74, 266, 320
- Lawrence County: state game land 148
- Warren County: state game lands 197 and 306
- Venango County: state game land 47 and Two Mile Run Park
- Blair County: state game land 166
- Huntingdon County: state game land 112
- Schuylkill County: Reading Anthracite property
- Luzerne County: state game land 260
- Susquehanna County: state game lands 35 and 175
The southwest and northcentral regions of the state are being spared any cuts. In fact, a couple of places in those regions are gaining birds.
Being added to the stocking list are game lands 332 in Indiana County 75 in Lycoming and Lock Haven Water Authority land in Clinton.