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Scott Rall: Fast-food fixes don't work

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer 

I took a wildlife ride the other day, and after the warm spell that we had there is lots of bare ground exposed for pheasants to forage over to find a meal.

I often wonder just how pheasants survive a blizzard when I know that a human would perish in only a few hours. With 45-below wind chills a pheasant must have some super powers to still be standing in April 1st of the following year.

They are one of God’s creatures that has the great ability to persevere what seems like overwhelming odds. What a pheasant cannot do is survive where there is no grass. It takes undisturbed grassland cover for pheasants to survive and raise their young. As the grasslands of the Upper Midwest continue to be threatened by crop conversion, I am often asked why we (conservationist and hunters) don’t just raise captive pheasants and release them in the spring when winter conditions are done for the season.

It is an interesting question and one with an answer that most folks really don’t understand. Many people think that releasing pheasants is just like stocking fish. Stock a lot of both and there will be more than enough fish and pheasants to go around.

There is a contraption called a suratator that is being marketed for the raising and releasing of pheasants into the landscape. It is about the size of a big dining room table and the operator adds everything it takes to sustain about 100 pheasant chicks to the age of about 6 weeks.

You add feed, water and 100-week-old pheasant chicks to the devices and walk away. They have enough food and water to survive for six weeks, and by that time they have grown to a size that they can escape the enclosure and head out on their own.

The device is championed as a no-human interaction device. This means that the pheasants as they grow up do not come in contact with humans on a regular basis. If birds are raised in a building or other structure, a human needs to add water and feed, and some think this acclimates the birds to humans and makes them less wild.

These devices are very costly, and I think they are a bad idea for a long list of reasons. First, they fall under what I call the fast-food mentality. Now I like fast food as much as the next person, but what I mean by the fast-food mentality is that if you are hungry you can order, be served, eat the contents and satisfy your appetite all in about eight minutes.

There are many problems that can be solved in the human world with money and very little time. Managing wildlife is not one of them.

There is no short-term, easy fix to increasing or sustaining the number and populations of different wildlife species. There have been many studies that show the cost of raising birds. These studies have proven that this is an expensive proposition. The cost of a pheasant in a hunter’s game bag is determined by the total number harvested divided by the total cost of production. Research that I have read says that the cost of a raised and harvested pheasant is between $15-$20 each.

The reason the cost per bird is so high is that most of these released or raised birds are long dead and gone before the hunting season ever starts.

Pheasant hens help their young avoid predators and teach them what they need to do to survive. A bird released out into to the wild after weeks in a building or in a metal cage doesn’t get this help and this fact makes them easy pickings for all the other animals that find them tasty.

Another short-term feel-good effort that some find a satisfactory substitution for high quality wildlife habitat and management is to release hen pheasants in the spring that were bred at a game fame and allowing them to, hopefully, build a nest and raise a brood in the wild. In the first example the young chicks were not exposed as to how to survive in the real world, and in the second example the hen adults were never exposed in any manner that gives them much of a chance to succeed with their intended purpose. They too, for the most part, get eaten in short order.

Not every chick and not every hen dies. There is a small percentage of both that make it to adulthood. But the percentage is very small, which is why these fast-food fixes don’t make for good wildlife management. It takes all the necessary habitat elements to sustain wildlife populations, and it is not likely that short-term fixes can ever work well enough.

There are two proper times for releasing birds, though. One is if you have a special event and want to ensure that there are birds there to shoot. I have purchased birds and released them in the morning and shot them in the afternoon to dog train with or help a young hunter get the feel for developing their shooting skills. A wild pheasant is much smarter and harder to hit than a chicken coop release rooster, so using a released bird to help train both dog and young hunter is certainly acceptable.

Another time releasing birds can have value is when there is enough suitable habitat available but weather conditions have killed all of the wild stock. In situations like this one, capturing wild stock from other areas and reintroducing them back into suitable habitat is certainly an acceptable wildlife management tool.

Wisconsin has areas that they release pen raised birds in and this allows the state’s residents to hunt pheasants until all of the released birds are killed or eaten for no cost other than a hunting license. This is also very costly, so it is done on a small scale because this state does not have suitable habitat in vast enough quantities to support a naturally reproducing population of this bird over the majority of the state.

In the end, the only money that should be spent to propagate wildlife species needs to be spent on the acquisition, enhancement and maintenance of quality habitat (on both public and private lands) even if this means it is only done in little pieces at a time. A little at a time over a long time can add up to the adequate acquisition of all of the habitat elements needed to operate a long-term sustainable program to manage wildlife and their habitats.

If everyone can get on the same page on these important habitat issues and work together, we can direct the spending where it will do the most good — long-term permanent habitat.

Please resist the temptation to use short-term fixes for a long-term problem. This thinking rarely if ever works.