Pheasant hunters in Eastern and Southeastern Washington may finally have a reason, and perhaps a season, to rejoice.
After several down years, pheasant numbers appear to be up, according to field observations by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff.
"I am guardedly optimistic about this hunting season," said Mick Cope, the department's upland game manager.
A wet and warm spring led to good seed production and grass growth -- and of paramount importance for chicks -- a large insect hatch, Cope said.
About 90 percent of the diet of a chick in its first three to four weeks of life consists of insects, said Kraig Paulson, Washington-Oregon biologist for the conservation group Pheasants Forever.
Brood sizes, consequently, were higher than biologists have seen in previous years during observations made in late August.
There were four to five chicks per hen in some areas. But in other areas, observers counted eight and even 13 chicks in a brood, Cope said. And Cope said his office also has had a few reports of sightings of young roosters just acquiring their coloration the first week of October.
"We've had good reports from our brood counts," Cope said.
That is welcome news for upland hunters. Last year, hunters harvested 87,024 pheasants statewide, down 7 percent from 2007 and 17 percent off the 2003-2007 average. The highest number of pheasants were harvested in Grant County, with 11,610, followed by Whitman County at 10,343, according to the state.
But access to private land and knowing the location of lands in fish and wildlife's cooperative programs with landowners -- including plots requiring hunters to register, obtain written permission and Feel Free to Hunt lands -- again will be pivotal to hunter success.
There are about 1.3 million acres statewide open to hunting through those three programs, Cope said. Hunters can find locations through the department's GoHunt mapping information site on its website, http://wdfw.wa.gov.
The site contains multi-layered maps displaying game management unit boundaries, pheasant release sites, private lands hunting opportunities and roads and topographical features.
Another 1.8 million acres are open to hunting in Washington through the federal Conservation Reserve Program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Landowners who enroll in CRP and plant resource-conserving covers improve water quality and wildlife habitat and help control soil erosion, officials say.
CRP contracts run from 10 to 15 years, and nationwide, thousands of acres of CRP are being converted to agricultural use as contracts expire. In Washington and nationwide, conservation groups and state fish and wildlife departments are working to try to stem the losses.
Improving habitat for wildlife is a goal of fish and wildlife. The department wants to reverse the habitat loss through the creation of a Pheasant Focus Area in portions of Whitman, Walla Walla, Garfield and Columbia counties that receive over 14 inches of precipitation annually -- and therefore won't require irrigation.
The plan calls for the state to buy land where it can, work with landowners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase quality acreage through the CRP program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and partner with groups like Pheasants Forever. The goal, according to the plan, is to double the number of acres of quality pheasant habitat in Southeast Washington by 2014.
Washington's Legislature a decade ago created the Eastern Washington Pheasant Enhancement Program to try to improve hunting. Eighty percent of the money was earmarked to pay for raising and releasing pheasants on lands open to public access.
The Legislature this year removed the 80 percent requirement, allowing fish and wildlife to spend more money on habitat-related projects. Last year, the department spent about $270,000 to release birds in Eastern Washington, and about $32,000 went for habitat, Paulson said.
"We'll be working over time to set in motion projects to improve habitat and natural production," Cope said. "Natural production is the best way to increase the upland pheasant population over the longer term."