The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Outdoors

March 22, 2014

Zaktansky column: Habitat critical in pheasant recovery process

Program evolves as some farms pull out of CREP

— Just shy of a decade ago, Peter Aiken — a longtime Pennsylvania Game Commission specialist, family friend and advocate of resuscitating the region’s pheasant population — had just finishing running his bird dogs at our family’s small farm in rural McEwensville.

“Have you heard about the Wild Pheasant Recovery Program they’re starting around here?” he asked us while packing up his gear.

Aiken shared the basic details — that some local farmers who were enrolled the state’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and would be planting a variety of habitat-boosting grasses and other cover crops would be working with the local Pheasants Forever chapter in the WPRP. Once the habitats were created, wild pheasants from South Dakota would be trapped and released on local properties with the hopes of jumpstarting a natural pheasant population.

“It all sounds great,” he said at the time. “But my big concern is what happens if the farmers decide to leave the program and go back to crop farming? What will happen to the habitat? What will happen to the pheasants?”

Keyword: “habitat.”

Out of all the theories of why the previously robust pheasant population in our area suddenly disappeared, the loss of critical habitat was always the key factor.

So far, a success

The partnership between the state’s CREP program and the local Pheasants Forever chapter has done wonders to local habitat concerns throughout the Central Susquehanna Wild Pheasant Recovery Area.

From 2007 through 2009, 998 pheasants were relocated from South Dakota to the local WPRA. Since then, the goal has simply been to improve upon and expand habitat and let nature takes its course.

“Last year, we had a big increase in the number of birds,” said Lynn Appleman, president of the Central Susquehanna Chapter of the Pheasants Forever. “Factoring in data from crowing counts and flushing surveys, we saw populations double within a year’s time. One of our best local farms, which has a 40-acre plot of switchgrass, produced 160 flushes.

“The only way to improve birds is to increase habitat. We’re working as fast as we can to improve the habitat,” added Appleman, who said he just picked up 600 pounds of switchgrass seed last Monday for the program.

“We’ve learned a lot in the past 10 years from the pheasants. CREP has been a bit of a disappointment in that it doesn’t offer winter cover. However, switchgrass has been a key component for us lately. Where there is a high density of switchgrass, there is a high density of birds. It holds up to a rough winter and provides the cover needed to survive. We’ve learned that we can interseed an old CREP field with switchgrass.”

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