Bringing back the pheasant

HEPPNER, Ore. -- Fall's flush starts here, in the heartland of Oregon wheat country.

Flush of pheasants, that is; the distinctly October robust explosion of harvest gold colors erupting in a fluid staccato of wingbeats, punctuated by synchronized cackling as the rooster pits his agitation against your aim.

And here, too, is the flush of Dennis Newman's enthusiasm; his optimism for what is shaping up to be the resurrection of Oregon's once-great pheasant hunting.

"I've seen it happen in Idaho; I've seen it in South Dakota," Newman said. "There's no reason we can't have it back in north-central Oregon. We've got all the right things here -- wheat, habitat, weather."

Newman, 31, is the new guy on a new tractor, spearheading a new effort by Pheasants Forever and the Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation to rebuild a long-neglected pheasant population.

With grants from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association and federal matching funds, Newman has set about a multi-year pilot project to restore habitat on private land opened up to public hunters.

The land is open under the state's Upland Cooperative Access Project (UCAP). Landowners who qualify are paid by hunters' fees to allow public access.

Habitat is the key to pheasant futures and the federal Conservation Reserve Program is the key to habitat.

Conservation Reserve, or CRP, began in the 1980s to protect soil from erosion. Farmers are paid to maintain marginal farmland in some sort of cover that keeps the soil in place.

Over the years, though, much CRP land has developed into a monoculture of grass while the federal program morphed into wildlife habitat restoration. Now, the emphasis is on diversity and renewal by landowners requires more attention to what grows on the large un-farmed tracts.

Enter Newman.

With a donated seeding drill and a tractor purchased by proceeds from a Pheasants Forever/Wildlife Heritage Foundation banquet in March, Newman managed to plant grains, forbs and cover on 500 acres this spring.

He's planning to treat another 800 next spring and, money and manpower willing, even more the following year as he connects properties in half dozen drainages of Morrow County.

"The CRP is the key," Newman said. "There's nothing out of pocket for the farmer (cooperating in the state access program). Our end goal is to produce more chicks."

It won't happen overnight. In fact, this will be a lean year for hunters because of some devastating thunderstorms that swept across wheat fields in the spring and summer just as chicks were hatching.

But in those areas with thick protective cover, water and plenty to eat, pheasant numbers held their own.

Pheasants need several stages of cover -- nesting, to protect sitting hens from predators; brood and rearing, with plenty of green forbs (green broad-leafed plants) to grow all-important insects for the chicks' first few weeks; food plots, offering grains and seeds for adult birds, and roosting areas.

Newman plants them all, even rotating last year's food plots into next year's forbs as he adds new adjacent food plots. It's much like farming, he said. "Anything that will grow a bug."

Since he began work, Newman said he's been inundated with requests from farmers eager to get help with their CRP. "I've got more work than I can handle," he said.

And there's no end in sight to the demand. The Bush administration recently began the authorization process for a plan that could reward landowners $3 to $4 an acre for allowing public hunting. It could open vast new acreages by 2010.

Meanwhile, hunters can learn about areas with UCAP hunting by first going to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website (www.dfw.state.or.us). Click on the hunting map on the right hand side of the main page and it will show both areas with cooperating landowners as well as specific properties where hunting is allowed without permission.

All UCAP properties require permission and hunters must first find a cooperating landowner (usually by driving to the area and looking for posted signs) then get the contact information from a local ODFW office and make the personal approach to the landowner.

John Kilkenny, who ranches cattle and farms wheat on 11,000 acres (he leases his hunting rights and is not in the state program), is one of Newman's strongest local supporters -- kind of a one-man chamber of commerce for hunters and an advocate for the public program.

He's personally financed much of the startup and has pledged to not only make Newman's pilot project work, but also to see it spread to other northern tier wheat counties as well.

"Whatever obstacles come up, we'll remove," Kilkenny said.

"There's no reason this can't be a whole lot more like South Dakota," he said.

"This town should be hopping on the opening day of pheasant season. It's good for the economy, it's good for the farmers and it's good for the hunters."