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October 08, 2013 | 04:06 PMIn autumn, Wisconsin flexes its natural beauty.
Its forests flame with red, orange and yellow, beckoning sportsmen and sportswomen to return to the wild – to ancient fields and rivers for one more camping trip before winter settles in or one last day of casting before the lakes freeze. In my case, fall has always meant a call to the hunt.
If you’re an upland bird hunter, you’re familiar with natural fluctuations in game bird populations. Some seasons are far more plentiful than others due to weather conditions, predator numbers, available cover and mysteries not completely understood.
If you’ve been hunting in Wisconsin for very long, you may have noticed that the sparse years have begun to outnumber the abundant. And if you’re a young hunter, you may have never known a good season like you’ve heard talked about by those with more experience.
Though I’d like to cross my fingers and hope that this year might be better than the last few, evidence suggests that there has been a significant decline in the long-term averages of pheasant and grouse populations in Wisconsin. And the birds may not return in force for quite some time.
I checked the brood reports of pheasant and grouse on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website. Though last year was a positive year in both pheasant and grouse numbers compared to 2011, the numbers are still significantly lower than the long-term averages established over the past four decades.
Grouse numbers have always been subject to cycles, but looking at a graph that traces the number observed each year, a clear negative pattern emerges.
Since 1970, the highs have not been as high, and the lows have gotten lower.
In 1972, there was a peak in the number of grouse observed during a field study – 3.5 broods seen per observer. The next highest peak, in 1989, was significantly lower – less than 2.5 broods seen per observer. In 1999, the peak barely jumped above the long-term average, for both boom and bust years, of around 1.35 broods per observer. And the numbers have remained below that long-term average for the past 14 years.
Observing the peaks and troughs of grouse numbers over the course of the past 40 years is like watching a bouncy-ball lose momentum after being thrown – high on the first bounce, lower on the second and so on.
Pheasant numbers, on the other hand, have dropped steadily without significant fluctuation cycles.
In 1970, 1.4 ring-necked pheasant broods were seen per observer.
In 2011, less than 0.2 broods were seen per observer – an all time low since the DNR began collecting brood data.
Brian Dhuey, a DNR scientist who specializes in wildlife and forestry research, blames the fall of grouse and pheasant numbers on habitat loss – fewer aspen groves in the north and fewer prairie grasslands in the south.
About grouse, he said, “The highs haven’t been as high as they have in the past. And that has to do with changing forest composition and our aging forests. I mean, we’re losing our aspen component of the northern forest. It’s being reduced every year. We’re losing more aspen, and grouse prefer aspen.”
Grouse need the cover that aspen growth provides in fall and winter. Without aspen, the grouse are exposed and more vulnerable to predators and adverse weather conditions.
According to a recent DNR report, Wisconsin aspen trees have very high mortality and removal rates.
“Aspen makes up 11 percent of (tree) volume and growth in Wisconsin, but accounts for 28 percent of total mortality and 23 percent of roundwood production,” the report states. “The ratio of removals to growth is greater than 100 percent, which means that we are harvesting more aspen than is being replaced by growth.”
The report indicates that the volume and density of Wisconsin’s aspen forests will most likely continue to fall in the future – the number of aspen saplings has decreased since 1996, suggesting a drop in new growth to replace the harvested or dead trees.
The number of grouse will most likely continue to fall with this decline in aspen growth.
The reason for the drop in pheasant numbers may have more to do with cuts in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Dhuey said.
The CRP started in the 1985 Farm Act as an expansion of earlier “Soil Bank” efforts to reduce soil erosion by paying farmers to refrain from planting on marginal acres. It was expanded later to include drained wetlands and other prime wildlife habitat.
The DNR worked with farmers to restore bird and animal habitat on lands enrolled in the CRP. Pheasant numbers had already begun to decline, but the CRP helped curb the severity of the drop for decades.
By the mid 2000s, however, CRP lands began declining in Wisconsin as farmer contracts expired during a time of rising crop prices.
“As commodity prices went up, the profitability of that land also went up,” Dhuey said. “And it got to the point where commodity prices were so high, it became profitable, again, for them to start planting on some of those marginal acres.”
Dhuey says the government just doesn’t have the money to support the program anymore – the budget could not sustain the increase in funding necessary to adequately compensate farmers for the rise in commodity prices.
As participation decreased, so did the grasslands available for ground-nesting pheasants and other birds.
But these changes haven’t affected wild turkeys.
While pheasant and grouse numbers have dropped, turkeys have flourished.
Back in the 1970s, turkeys were extinct in Wisconsin – nowhere to be found. Now the species is so abundant that turkeys have been spotted roosting on Marquette University’s campus in downtown Milwaukee.
While actively searching for pheasants in the past few years, I have counted a handful and fired at fewer. At the same time, I’ve spotted more turkeys than I can count. I couldn’t shoot at them, though. A small game permit, picked up at any Sports shop, allows me to hunt pheasant and grouse for a couple of months.
Turkey hunting regulations remain nearly as strict as when the birds were regaining their footing within the state.
Those wishing to obtain a turkey permit still must enter a lottery months before the spring and fall seasons.
The number of permits is capped. Each spring permit is good for one tom taken during an assigned seven-day period (up from five days in the past). Each fall permit is good for one tom or hen.
These regulations are not without reason – the turkey re-introduction efforts made by the DNR have been wildly successful.
But I think the time has come to treat turkeys as an abundant resource and pheasant and grouse as scarce resources by comparison.
Dhuey said that the possibility of changing turkey regulations to be more similar to those of pheasant and grouse has been discussed, but not seriously – there has been no effort to change them.
I love hunting pheasants and watching my brother’s yellow lab work fields on weekend mornings in the fall. I hope future generations of hunters will be able to enjoy the same thrills that I have when a grouse bursts from cover.
But I fear they won’t if we don’t reverse the trends.
The time has come, in my opinion, to make it less cumbersome to hunt wild turkeys while we work to restore grouse and pheasant habitat and populations.