The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 22, 2014

Zaktansky column: Habitat critical in pheasant recovery process

Program evolves as some farms pull out of CREP

By John Zaktansky
The Daily Item

— 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.”



Losing farms, habitat

Landowner Sam Corderman, of Turbotville, saw the results first-hand. He enrolled in the CREP program more than 10 years ago and was selected to be a part of the pheasant recovery program.

“They released birds at my place probably a year after we went into the program. The following year, they put a few more out. The pheasants did fairly well out there,” he said. “But I’m not sure how they’ll fare now that we’re going back into crop farming. The farmer who does our land cut all the grasses down.”

Corderman decided to leave the CREP program at the end of his 10-year contract for a variety of reasons, including increasing crop prices and issues he had with maintaining thistle that was intruding upon his CREP-planted fields.

“The tall grass was supposed to overpower the thistle, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, one year, we spent nearly $3,000 to attempt to stay ahead of it,” Corderman said. “A neighbor is trying to grow organic tobacco and one of their concerns was that the thistle would spread. ”

He admits that getting out of the CREP program has affected the habitat on his property.

“There’s no doubt they had much better hiding areas before. The grasses would fall over and create little teepees — an ideal habitat for the birds,” Corderman said. “We do still see a few birds, but we also hear coyotes at night and see plenty of redtail hawks around. The pheasants aren’t as protected as before.”



The ‘critical line’

Colleen DeLong is the lead wildlife biologist for the region’s pheasant recovery efforts, previously through Pheasants Forever and now with the game commission. She admits that predicting long-term effects can be quite difficult.

“CREP is a 10-year program. You never know what might happen for a farmer over the course of time,” she said. “What happened in the last year — grain prices went pretty high. When people’s contracts expired, they went back to crop farming or rented their property out. The popularity of conservation programs like CREP varies with factors like grain prices.”

The real question, DeLong admits, is how much this is affecting the local program.

“It is tricky. What is that critical line when we’ve lost too much habitat?” she said. “Pheasants are a farmland bird. We need enough habitat on the ground to cover the population or add enough habitat to cover what is lost.”



Lessons learned

“What we’ve learned from pheasants is that they don’t need long expanses but moreso pockets of cover along with cropland nearby for brood and food,” DeLong said. “Just a little bit on every farm would be fantastic.

“One thing we’ve found is that pheasants in general are not big dispersers. They live most of their life within one square mile,” DeLong continued. “On a farm with good habitat including some cover, food and nesting areas, there is no need to move.”

Which means that every farmer can do his/her part to contribute to the pheasant recovery efforts without sacrificing large swaths of revenue-generating land in the process.

“Pheasants Forever says a field should be at least 10 acres in size — or at least five acres here and five acres there. The new farm bill includes the opportunity for new CREP signups and farmers are telling us that they offer more money to those who renew or get involved for the first time,” Appleman said. “Who’s to say that a farmer can’t do half-and-half, with CREP on one part of the farm and crops on the other? The combination is ideal for pheasants and having a steady guaranteed income on part of the land to supplement the crop part seems like a good idea.”

A pheasant restoration update meeting is open to the pubic and scheduled for Wednesday, April 9, at 6 p.m. at the PPL Montour Preserve Enviromental Center. For more information about the program, visit the local Pheasants Forever chapter website at centralsusquehannapf.org or contact DeLong directly at (570) 380-0833.

Email comments to jzaktansky@dailyitem.com