The following story was reported by Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Less than two weeks after the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) received a shipment of 500 baby birds in June, “approximately 470″ chicks were found dead in their pens.
Young dead birds accounted for more than a third of the riders the agency was planning to release for pheasant hunting in the fall in Emery and Carbon counties.
Chicks in the Barren Desert Lake Waterfowl Department of Emery County were small enough to be fed and watered by a freshwater department employee. When that employee went on vacation, the agency said another employee didn’t know any weekends to take care of birds.
“Due to a misunderstanding, the pheasant chicks were not fed or watered for three days, resulting in their death,” DWR spokeswoman Faith Jolly said in an emailed statement.
“It is extremely unfortunate that this incident occurred, and we have taken steps to ensure that this does not happen again,” Jolie added.
Defenders of wild upland birds, such as Annelyse Biblehimer of Pheasants Forever, say farm-raised pheasants are at risk when released, even when they are properly cared for. Biblehimer worked on a pheasant farm before becoming a wildlife and rangeland conservationist in eastern Utah.
“When you store them for hunting, scarcely any are left alive to make them breed,” she said of her work on a pheasant farm.
Utah, like many states, struggles to keep the pheasant hunting tradition alive by relying on barn-bred birds because much of the upland game’s habitat is being swallowed up by developments.
But the release of barn-bred birds is just a measure to fill in the gap that may negatively affect the health of the still surviving wild bird populations.
The Utah Project for Investigative Journalism submitted a request to document the agency’s communications or investigate the incident in which the chicks died of thirst and starvation and was told that there were no such records.
In an email that was also copied to seven DWR employees, the agency explained that no reports were generated and no employees communicated with each other via email about the incident.
“We don’t have protocols that require a formal report in these scenarios,” Jolly said. She noted that the staff worked in the same building and through “internal discussions” about the incident came up with a common calendar and timetable to prevent it from happening in the future.
The bill, filed through the Records Order, shows that the state paid $775 for 500 gradient birds on June 15, along with $310 for 200 chukars, another game bird, from a local farm and hatchery.
Jolly said the state is looking to make up for the lost riders to get ready for the fall chases.
“This successful program has been implemented over the past decade,” Jolie said.
The pheasant hunt generally takes place during the end of November until the first week of December, with special hunting trips for youngsters taking place every year.
It is unknown how many wild riders live in Utah as DWR stopped tracking them 20 years ago because their habitat was disappearing.
Dan Potts is a passionate outdoorsman, hunting and fishing member and a member of the DWR Regional Advisory Committee for the central region of the state. He says the wild riders have long been driven out of most corners of Utah. Game riders and other highlanders formerly flourished in cornfields and farmland.
“So all of this farmland has been usurped by developments of one kind or another, and that is where the cyclist went,” Potts said.
He says the state has invested in youth hunting for farm-raised birds, which helps arouse the youth’s enthusiasm for hunting. It also gives older hunters like him a chance to help, while bringing their pheasant dogs out and reliving their childhood hunting memories.
“It’s good for their bottom line because they’ve got an old fart like me with avian dogs that want to go somewhere. [hunt pheasants] Potts said, referring to various commercial pheasant hunting farms.
The farm-raised birds are also very popular on the hunt because they forage, fatter, and taste better with corn than the wild birds that Potts refers to as “lean medium machines.”
He is a strong supporter of DWR pheasant hunting and management, but he also acknowledges that wilderness riders are better for upland habitats in general.
But these birds face long odds and have been “pushed and pushed until now they have nowhere to go.”
“Good for the flock”
For Biblehimer with Pheasants Forever, a national advocacy group for wild pheasants, releasing barn-bred birds that cannot acclimatize into the wild does nothing to help dwindling wild bird populations.
“When they are released into the wild, they don’t have the skills or know-how to thrive there,” said Pepelheimer.
Forever Pheasant spokesperson Jared Weklund echoed this point and added that barn-bred birds may be easy prey bringing predators to areas that affect other bird species. And his release may have other negative effects on wild populations, too, he says.
“Release of thousands of barn-bred birds over many years may reduce the ‘brutality’ of the wild stock,” Weklund said in an emailed statement.
His organization tracked the lost residents who disappeared along with the vanishing meadows of pastures that stretched across the country like an ocean. Seventy percent of that land has disappeared since 1966, and with it 40 percent of the grass fowl. Their death is closely related to the disappearance of farms and pastures across the West.
Pheasants Forever hosts agricultural biologists across the country who help ranchers and interested farmers make simple changes with their characteristics that help support their agricultural interests and wild bird populations at the same time. For example, Biblehimer primarily works with wise grouse in the Uinta Basin, advising ranchers on practices such as equitable distribution of water facilities to livestock across their property. This benefits upland birds, she said, and also gets the cows out of range so they use them evenly, rather than overgrazing and spoiling the surroundings.
Wiklund says that point goes to the group’s motto that “what is good for the bird is good for the flock,” with strong grasslands supporting both cattle and pheasant farms—not to mention “pollinators, water quality, large game species, and climate resilience.”
Nationally, Weklund says their organization, along with more than two dozen other conservation groups and athletes, is lending its support to the North American Grassland Conservation Act — sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and others — that would create voluntarily. Program to conserve vulnerable grasslands and sagebrush ecosystems with $300 million in funding.
Locally, Wiklund says Forever Riders have entered into an agreement to hire a habitat specialist position in Utah that will aid in pheasant habitat restoration goals.
Jolly said the state has worked to support pheasant population growth, pointing to a Utah watershed restoration initiative that has helped protect more than 27,000 pheasant-useful acres. The state also maintains an ongoing Upland Games management plan that is updated every decade, with the latest plan approved in June.
This plan outlines proposals to work with federal, state, and nonprofit agencies to support wild populations. But he also notes that “cyclist groups in Utah are currently not monitored,” which complicates the goal of increasing their numbers. The plan notes that the surveys previously provided data to the public about hunting prospects, but that “habitat loss in survey areas reduced the effectiveness of field surveys and they were removed from action plans in 2001.”
While Wiklund says Pheasants Forever is excited to partner with Utah in habitat conservation, their organization does not endorse barn-reared birds under any circumstances.
“Over the past 50 years, an enormous amount of money has been spent on supplemental storage programs,” Weklund said. “Had those dollars been invested in habitat restoration, hundreds of species of wildlife as well as highland birds could have benefited.”