Pheasant release nixed in Fergus, Roosevelt and Richland counties

Deb Hill
Friday, July 22, 2022
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Photo by Dan Russon on Unsplash

An in-house decision at Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department means no pen-raised pheasants will be released in Fergus, Roosevelt or Richland counties, at least not this fall. 

The department will move ahead with the planned release of pheasants reared at the state prison farm on state lands in other Montana counties.

FWP Director of Special Projects Deb O’Neill confirmed Thursday, in response to a question from the News-Argus, that no pheasants will be released in Fergus County due to an existing administrative rule banning the release of pheasants here and in the other two counties.

The rule actually governs a different FWP program, the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program.

“It was enacted to provide areas in which no pheasants were ever released to serve as controls that could be compared with areas where pheasants were released, should there be a future study looking at the impacts of the pheasant release program,” said UGBEP Coordinator Debbie Hohler, adding that no such study is currently planned.

Hohler oversees FWP’s efforts to manage upland game birds in Montana. She has been the program coordinator since 2008, although the program itself began in 1987.

“We work with landowners, and there are two parts of the upland game bird enhancement program,” Hohler said. “One is releasing birds and the other is habitat enhancement, both for private landowners. In recent years we haven’t done much releasing, but when we were doing more of it, we connected private landowners with private farms where birds were being raised. Now our program is mostly helping landowners improve upland game bird habitat through things like CRP lands or grazing systems.”

Hohler said her program is funded through license fees. A non-resident hunter pays $23 in fees to the upland game bird enhancement program whereas a resident hunter pays $2.

Hohler clarified that the UGBE program she runs is completely separate from the new pheasant release program, which is part of FWP’s R3 plan.

R3 stands for Recruit, Retain, Reactivate, and is an effort to combat the decrease in hunter numbers. In the last legislative session, $1 million in FWP funding was approved to pay for raising thousands of pheasants at the state prison farm with a goal of releasing them on state lands, partially in connection with the scheduled youth hunting days in September. It is hoped the pheasant release would encourage young hunters to take up bird hunting.

Many sportsmen’s groups across the state objected to the R3 release of pen-raised pheasants, citing concerns such as contaminating the genetics of wild pheasant populations, over-populating habitats and “dumbing down” the pheasant hunting experience.

While the planned release of pen-raised pheasants will continue on state lands in many of Montana’s counties, none will be coming to Fergus, Roosevelt or Richland counties, at least not under the R3 program.

A brief history of pheasants in Montana


The ring-necked pheasant is not native to Montana, or even to the U.S. Originally from Asia, the first birds on this continent were introduced in Oregon in 1881, and shortly thereafter, around 1885, were released in Montana.

The 1902 Montana Fish and Game Department’s biennial report said pheasants had been released yearly since 1885 with poor success. 

Between 1902 and 1929 about 7,000 pheasants, a mix of Chinese, English and Mongolian species, had been released in the state, and were abundant enough in some areas that sportsmen’s groups requested hunting be allowed. 

The first Montana pheasant hunt was a two-day season in November 1928. Although a “slaughter” had been predicted, apparently few birds were shot. 

In the 1940s pheasant populations were large enough that birds were transplanted from areas with many pheasants to areas with only a few. Most of the transplants came from the Yellowstone and Milk River valleys. A study from the 1940s showed agricultural crops made up the bulk of the pheasant diet. 

Changing land use patterns in Montana, including more intensive cultivation, has led to a decrease in pheasant habitat and numbers since the height of the population in the late 1940s. In the 1950s and 60s, in some years over 300,000 pheasants were harvested, compared with about 163,000 in the early 2000s.

More information on the history of pheasants in Montana is available in the book “Game Management in Montana” published in 1971 and written by authors Thomas W. Mussehl and F.W. Howell.