FWP pheasant stocking program moving forward, despite opposition

Deb Hill
Friday, July 15, 2022
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A male ringneck pheasant’s gaudy plumage provides colorful contrast to late season dried grasses. A program through FWP and the state prison farm would stock pen-raised birds on state lands, including the Beckman Wildlife Management Area near Denton prior to the youth hunting weekend. Photo courtesy of Kristine Manley

Birds will soon hit the ground under a Fish, Wildlife and Parks program aimed at increasing the number of youth hunters by stocking pen-raised pheasants on state-owned land across Montana, including Beckman Wildlife Management Area near Denton. 

The project has ruffled the feathers of some sportsmen’s groups, who call it a waste of wildlife funding dollars they say should be spent instead on improving pheasant habitat, while supporters say it is a valid way to encourage more youth to hunt.

The 2021 state legislature approved, via House Bill 637, spending up to $1 million a year to pay the state prison farm to raise 50,000 pheasants. The funding was approved for 2021 and 2022, and in 2023 becomes part of FWP’s base budget. Half of the funds will come from Pittman Robertson funds (federal excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment) and half from state hunting license dollars.

Last year, as the bill made its way through various House and Senate committees, both lawmakers and outdoorsmen expressed concerns about the goals and cost of the proposal.

“We feel strongly that pheasant stocking is inefficient and expensive. We would rather see that money used to improve habitat on WMAs,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. Gevock was testifying before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee in April 2021.

“That’s $20 per pheasant,” said Senator Tom Jacobson, SD 41, member of the Finance and Claims Committee. “Is that the standard price for pheasant? Is that with or without sides [side dishes],” he quipped.

On the other hand, proponents point to the cost of stocking fish for anglers as following a similar philosophy.

“We will plant the birds before the youth hunting season; putting birds in front of kids for them to shoot is not much different than planting fish in backcountry lakes by helicopter for anglers,” said FWP Legislative Liaison Ron Jendro.


Can pheasants slow the 

decline in hunter numbers?

Hunter numbers in the U.S. have been on the decline for decades, and currently less than 4% of the population hunts. With funding for wildlife conservation and habitat programs directly tied to hunter numbers, fish and wildlife departments across the country are testing ways to entice new hunters into the field.

Could pheasant stocking be part of the answer?

FWP staff said the program supports the department’s efforts to recruit, retain or reactivate (R3) sportsmen by making it easier for young hunters to experience success.

 “There are a lot of factors that influence why people start hunting, or why they stop,” FWP spokesman Greg Lemon told the News-Argus. “There are a lot of hurdles, especially for kids and new hunters. I really believe one of the easiest ways to get new hunters started is bird hunting.”

Lemon points to the success of FWP’s “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program as an example.

“We take women out, they learn to identify birds, they shoot waterfowl, they learn to clean and cook them. It’s immediate feedback. It’s different than hunting elk, where you might have to hike a lot of mountains and maybe not even see an elk, maybe only shoot one every five years. Bird hunting is much more accessible with a more direct line to success.”

This same concept, Lemon said, can work when recruiting young hunters as well.

“The easiest way to increase the number of hunters is to recruit young families. If you get mom and dad hunting, then the kids get excited about it also. If you couple a program like this pheasant program with young hunters, you get traction.”


But is it real pheasant hunting?

In response, experienced birdhunters say one of the key reasons they hunt pheasants is exactly because it is not easy.

“Pheasants have earned their reputation as America’s most popular upland game bird because of the challenge they offer in the field. Tough and wily, they seldom fall easily even to experienced hunters. None of us who love to hunt them regard these traits as problems,” wrote avid hunter Don Thomas of Lewistown. “On the contrary, they explain why we spend so much time hiking Montana terrain with our beloved bird dogs and derive such satisfaction from serving a wild pheasant dinner to family and guests. Pen raised birds do not provide that challenge. Shooting them is more akin to shooting barnyard chickens than wild ringnecks.”

Thomas’s comments were made in response to FWP’s request for public comment on the pheasant-stocking program, and were approved by the entire Montana Sportsmen Alliance board on which he sits. Thomas’s comments also included concerns about the cost of raising pheasants versus using the funds for habitat improvement and the potential for H5N1 bird flu outbreaks.

Some other local hunters agree.

“It’s a rite of passage to learn to hunt wild animals; it shouldn’t be easy. You need to work for it,” said Doug Krings of Lewistown, spokesperson for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. In addition to objecting to “put and take” hunting, Krings has concerns about the impact for wild pheasants.

“Any time man messes with nature to try and benefit something, something else gets messed up. When you are overpopulating the habitat just for a cheap thrill, you are affecting habitat for the wild populations, too,” Krings said.

Overall, FWP received 218 comments, with four out of five opposing the program, but in April FWP approved the program to move forward. 

Several thousand birds are already being cared for at the state prison farm, and stocking will begin as early as next month. 

Youth hunting days for waterfowl and pheasant are Sept. 24-25. Licensed hunters, 15 and under, will be able to hunt ducks, mergansers, geese, coots and pheasants statewide on these two days. Pheasants from the state prison farm pens will be stocked on the Beckman Wildlife Management Area prior to the hunt.