Pheasant season opens today in Eastern Washington

Upland hunters in Eastern Washington could find more birds in some locations than biologists initially expected when the pheasant season opens today, thanks to an apparent late hatch.

The pheasant population has dropped in Eastern Washington since the early 1980s, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wants to reverse the decline. The department, in its game management plan for 2009-15, intends to acquire and improve habitat in Southeast Washington and try to provide more hunting opportunities.

Biologists had feared hunters would find populations at the same or lower numbers than last year in some areas because of a cold, wet spring that hurt the hatch of chicks.

It is unknown how many hens might have re-nested. But anecdotal evidence, from the number of pheasants taken during the youth season Sept. 20-21, suggests some re-nesting occurred, said Madonna Luers, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife based in Spokane.

"In Whitman County and the breaks of the Snake (River), some of our guys during (hunter) checks for the youth season found a lot of yearling birds," Luers said.

And deer hunters out for the opening of the modern firearms season last weekend reported seeing numbers of pheasants concentrated near pockets of water, said Joey McCanna, department upland bird specialist.

"It's not going to be a great year, but it's going to be a better year than we expected," McCanna said of the season, which runs through Jan. 19 in Eastern Washington.

Last year, 25,021 pheasant hunters took 94,018 roosters statewide, down 17 percent from 2006. The number of hunters was down from the previous year, also continuing a trend.

Grant County led the state with the highest number of pheasants harvested, with 14,746. Whitman was next at 10,347, followed by Yakima, 8,191, Walla Walla, 7,573, and Franklin, 5,375.

In 1984, hunters killed an estimated 264,000 birds. By 1994, the harvest was 131,000 birds.

The loss of habitat over the past half-century has led to the decline of the pheasant population in Eastern Washington, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But the department wants to reverse that in part 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 to sustain plants, McCanna said.

The game management 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 Conservation Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and partner with conservation groups like Pheasants Forever to improve habitat.

The goal, according to the plan, is to double the number of acres of quality pheasant habitat in Southeast Washington by 2014.

"The overall goal is to improve pheasant habitat in the focus area," said Mick Cope, the department's upland game manager.

One reason for the urgency is the expiration of CRP contracts in the next two to three years, McCanna said, and the possibility some landowners will choose not to re-enroll.

As part of the plan, the state also will seek to work with landowners to open up more access to private land, publicize where public hunting access is available and develop limited entry areas, marked sites and walk-in sites to provide more quality hunting.

Pheasants Forever applauds the effort to improve habitat, said Kraig Paulson, Washington-Oregon biologist for Pheasants Forever. One practice the group encourages is leaving small strips of cover at the edges of fields instead of plowing them under.

"Habitat is definitely an area we need to work on," he said.

* Kevin McCullen: 582-1535; kmccullen@tricityherald.com