Hard Lessons in Pheasant Reintroduction
By: Steve Galea
For the immediate future, Ontario gunners are going to have to travel elsewhere to hunt wild ringnecks
Ontario's pheasant-reintroduction programme seems to have quickly run its course - and that's unfortunate. I suspect most of us would have jumped at the opportunity to hunt truly wild pheasants again here in our home province.
After all, these legendary birds shared an honoured place with greenheads, wide-racked bucks, and majestic moose in the sporting calendars of a different era.
They were an upland hunter's favourite, a flamboyant bird ideal for gun dogs, and a common sight around the patchwork farmlands of southern Ontario. Along with woodcock and ruffed grouse, they formed the Holy Trinity of our upland birds.
Brought to Ontario's southwest in 1895, these Eurasian birds found our rural fencerows, edge cover, and old-style farming techniques ideal. The systemic targeting of avian and land-based predators didn't hurt either. Reinforced by hatchery-raised birds, ring-necked pheasant populations thrived. Game-bird status followed in 1922, and the first regulated hunting season opened in 1924 in Lincoln and Welland Counties.
Unfortunately, while pen-raised birds bolstered numbers, they also diluted traits that aided survival. This and increased pesticide use, urban sprawl, and efficient farming practices, which left little waste and cover, heralded their decline. No wonder that when Ontario populations plummeted for the final time in the early 1980s, a plan to bring back wild pheasants was hatched.
In 1997, a reintroduction programme was announced, which eventually partnered the Rural Lambton Stewardship Network (RLSN) and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and others. Five years later, after public consultations, environmental assessments, and a host of preparations, 46 wild pheasants were released in Lambton County. By 2004, a total of 210 birds had been trapped and transferred successfully from near Leader, Saskatchewan, to release sites in Ontario's Lambton and Elgin Counties.
Initially, these western birds seemed to adapt well. Unfortunately, the most recent surveys indicate no pheasant sightings in Lambton County and only a small pocket of 30 to 40 birds in Elgin County. At best, the latter group is holding its ground; at worst, it's merely two years behind the initial group in a steady decline.
Even so, Dan Elliot, the MNR's area supervisor for Alymer District, believes the pheasant pilot project was successful. "You need to remember that we had never done this before," he said. "This project allowed us to develop sound methodologies and learn a lot about how to reintroduce pheasants in Ontario. There are still questions to be answered, though."
RLSN Stewardship Co-ordinator Ron Ludolph is even more optimistic. "There are birds at the Elgin release site and I believe that there are others in Lambton, too," he said. "I think the survey simply missed them."
From a hunter's perspective, however, the pheasant reintroduction has failed. While no one could have reasonably expected a huntable population of birds to emerge from these reintroductions in so short a time, most of us were hoping for a slow increase in numbers and perhaps a small trap-and-transfer effort modelled after the wild turkey programme. Instead, there's been a steady decline since the initial releases.
What Went Wrong?
As is always the case, no single factor was responsible for the decline. Having said this, Elliot reports that as much as 60% of recovered carcasses of radio-bibbed bird indicated predation - both avian and terrestrial - was a significant factor in the first year.
"There's also speculation that chemicals used in farming inhibited the young birds' ability to survive," he adds. "We need more research to confirm this." In the end, Patrick Hubert, the MNR's avian biologist, agrees, but feels habitat is the ultimate factor. "The question is, do we have enough?" he said.
This is a key concern, says Mike Parker, a biologist with Pheasants Forever in Michigan. "The biggest limiting factor on a pheasant population is the lack of secure nesting cover," he said. "You need big blocks of undisturbed cover that's not hayed or mowed during nesting season. Predators have little impact in areas with large blocks of quality habitat. If predation is a problem, it's often a symptom of insufficient habitat."
Though hunting was virtually a non-issue with the reintroduced birds, Parker also suggests Ontario's current pheasant-hunting regulations are not conducive to population rehabilitation. Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions that allow hens to be taken. Hubert concurs and says major regulatory changes should be considered if the programme is to be reinstated.
Perhaps the programme has simply been cut short too soon. Successful reintroductions elsewhere were undertaken over longer periods and with far more birds, notes Parker. "Even then, you only start seeing results after 10 years or so," he said.
Okay, so we've learned a thing or two, but will that knowledge be put to use here? "As of now, the programme is over," said Hubert. "We might revisit this in the future, but there are other things we need to attend to first."
Will we ever see a viable wild ringneck population in Ontario again? The key, Hubert says, lies in habitat creation. "If conservation groups such as Pheasants Forever and others continue to create good cover, who knows how it will affect remnant pheasant populations or policy-making decisions?" In the meantime, Ontario's hunters will just have to admire old calendars and settle for pen-raised birds and public releases.