By Bill VanderZouwen
Editor’s Note: This year we have the good fortune of a combined Michigan pheasant report and forecast prepared by a key Pheasants Forever representative in the state, Michigan Regional Representative Bill Vander Zouwen.
Michigan has a great pheasant hunting tradition. Many of our seniors remember the days when schools closed on the opening day of pheasant season because of low attendance. Everybody knew what the kids were up to – hunting roosters!
While those days are gone, there’s still some good pheasant hunting in Michigan, if you know where to look and what to look for.
The challenge to Michigan pheasants is the combination of abundant woodlands and intensive agriculture. Neither provide for the habitat needs of wintering, nesting and brood-rearing pheasants. Predators have the upper hand in the winter, and any chicks that hatch have a hard time finding food during the summer in this landscape.
Most pheasants are now found where there are fields set aside for conservation efforts on state lands and private lands. Most of the private lands fields are enrolled in US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Bill programs.
Farm Bill Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) fields peaked at around 330,000 acres in Michigan, but are now at less than half that amount. Many public state game area fields were invaded by brush and trees during the more than 15 years that hunting fees remained stagnant and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) budgets and field staffing declined. These were desperate times, and something needed to be done.
MICHIGAN PHEASANT RESTORATION INITIATIVE
The Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative (MPRI) was born in 2010 with a broad coalition of agencies and non-profit conservation organizations working together to improve habitat, add habitat, provide hunting access, find new habitat funding sources and recruit hunters.
The coalition has done impressive work that was tallied in a 2011-15 accomplishment report and reported each year since. Among the accomplishments was 108,000 acres of habitat provided by Pheasants Forever chapters in the first 7 years of the initiative. MDNR, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, County Conservation Districts, National Wild Turkey Federation and many others provided many acres for the cause. But, the USDA Farm Bill remains king in terms of affecting landscape scale habitat acreage.
The MPRI coalition is using whatever tools can be found to provide more habitat. For example, the Michigan DNR provides about $1 million per year for habitat grants, and Pheasants Forever and its partners have received well over $800,000 in habitat grants to improve habitat on public lands (hint: start taking notes for good huting spots) including Verona, Maple River, Shiawassee, Rose Lake, Gratiot-Saginaw, Sharonville, and Lapeer State Game Areas (SGA), Coldwater Lake State Park and Lake Hudson State Recreation Area (SRA).
A ceremony was held in early September at Lake Hudson SRA to celebrate completion of restoration of 655 acres of grassland habitat. At Verona SGA, another premier grassland property, over 350 acres of invading brush and trees were cleared, and 343 acres of switchgrass and diverse prairies were planted in the last 3 years. It will take some time for these grasslands to mature and pheasants to fully respond, but we are seeing positive results already.
Michigan DNR, Enbridge Inc., and Pheasants Forever entered into a 3-year agreement in 2016, where Enbridge provided $500,000 to Pheasants Forever to complete habitat projects on priority MPRI state lands across southern Michigan. Many of the projects have been completed, and all the funds will make habitat by summer 2019.
In 2018, Pheasants Forever initiated a brand new program that has never been tried in Michigan before…the Adopt-A-Game-Area Program. The purpose of this program is to accelerate grassland restoration on 20 SGA and SRA across southern Michigan, where we have the best chance of seeing a pheasant response.
Thanks to funding from Pheasants Forever, Michigan DNR and the Hal & Jean Glassen Memorial Foundation, Ben Beaman was hired by Pheasants Forever to coordinate the program. He’ll be seeking substantial donations for habitat projects that will be contracted with vendors to complete. Donors will be recognized on websites, in magazines and on kiosks erected at each property. More details can be found at www.michiganpheasantsforever.org
In my opinion, the best thing to happen for pheasants in Michigan in the last 5 years is approval of our CRP SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement) proposal that saw more than 17,000 acres of land offered by landowners in just a couple months this summer. We’re hoping that the next Farm Bill will allow us to get the rest of the 40,000 acres authorized by the program, with $61million coming to Michigan landowners as incentives for providing habitat and improving water quality downstream from habitat plots.
We have to be patient for all of this new habitat to mature and for pheasants to respond. We also need to see a landscape of habitat that includes both public land and private land habitat, and the coalition is working toward that end.
WHERE TO HUNT
So, where should you look for pheasants this year?
Best areas will be large grassland fields in open agricultural landscapes, that are not dominated by woodlands and that have winter cover in the form of cattail marshes or dense prairie grasses like switchgrass.
Counties where chapter members reported seeing pheasants are many and include, but are not limited to, Huron, Sanilac, Tuscola, Gratiot, Saginaw, Bay, Midland, Eaton, Clinton, Monroe, Hillsdale, Calhoun, Montcalm, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale, Lenawee, Jackson and Washtenaw. Some of the public lands that support pheasants include Allegan SGA, Gratiot-Saginaw SGA, Lake Hudson SRA, Maple River SGA, Sharonville SGA, Verona SGA, and Thumb mini-SGAs. Best numbers can be found in the Thumb and in southeastern Michigan.
Prospects, compared to last year, depend on the changes in habitat availability on the landscape as well as the weather. Where CRP contracts expired or were terminated, there will be less pheasants. We had a moderate winter last year, with accumulated snowfall in the 40-60 inch range in southeastern Michigan. An April snowstorm no doubt caused some problems for pheasants in areas. Rainfall was nowhere in sight for some counties for much of the summer, while other counties saw several large rain events. Both likely had adverse impacts on brood survival. The Thumb was particularly dry, and the large rain events were most frequent in south central Michigan.
The Mail Carrier Brood Survey results were not available at the publication deadline, and we will publish an update when they are tallied. But landowners and dog trainers were seeing pheasants where you would expect them to. Some chapter volunteers who regularly train their dogs on Thumb SGAs saw about 1/3 less birds this summer than last summer, perhaps reflecting the drought there. In contrast, a landowner in Branch County with much CRP around his house, reporting seeing broods over 30 different times this summer.
Pheasants can be hard to find in the early season, when much of the corn is still standing. But you may catch them early or late in the day in the grassland roosting cover or mid-day in heavy cover loafing areas. Southeastern Michigan offers a December season that can be a great time to find pheasants and work the dogs in cooler weather. A fresh snow provides an exciting day of walking through grasslands and seeing tracks, generating anticipation of flushes to come.
The 2018 Michigan Pheasant Season is October 10-31 in north Zone 1; October 20 - November 14 in the southwest Zone 2; and October 20 – November 14 and December 1 – January 1 in the southeast Zone 3. The daily bag limit is 2 roosters, with a possession limit of 4.