The release this fall of more than 16,000 pheasants at key locations in Central and Southern Alberta — including sites around Buffalo Lake and Red Deer — marks what conservationists hope is a fresh start in gamebird management.
Starting in the early 1900s, ringneck pheasants have been raised in captivity and then released into Alberta’s wilds to provide hunting opportunities for enthusiasts and their dogs, rancher and businessman Stan Grad, co-founder of Upland Birds Alberta said on Saturday.
A few of the handsome birds and their less flamboyant mates, native to Asia, manage to survive and raise young in rougher and more isolated areas, where they can run out and grab some grain and then hide in heavy bush.
But many fall prey to coyotes and raptors because they cannot find sufficient cover and food sources close together, so the captivity program has been necessary to sustain populations for hunting, said Grad.
“In the 60s and 70s and 80s, there was great habitat and lots of wild pheasants. Alberta was known for its great population of wild birds,” said Grad.
Movie actors and other high profile people would come up from the United States for the fall pheasant season, injecting thousands of dollars into communities like Vauxhall and Brooks.
Grad said he became alarmed when he learned that there had been a big drop in the number of birds being released, from 70,000 birds 20 years ago to under 7,000 in more recent years. The number of bird hunters had also decreased, but flattened out couple of years ago and is now starting to rise, with increased interest among women and youths, said Grad.
There are some areas where the wild populations are holding their own, and populations of native species such as Hungarian partridges and spruce grouse are actually starting to rise.
But Alberta needs more pheasants to populate those areas where they have not been able to thrive on their own, says Grad.
Along with the ongoing loss of natural habitat, the recent bankruptcy of a Brooks-area company that had been raising large numbers of pheasants has severely reduced the available supply of replacement birds, he said.
About four years ago, Grad pulled together a group of like-minded individuals to look at those numbers and start working on sources for birds to be released in areas where the wild populations are not being sustained.
“In recognizing this increased need for more birds and that, ultimately, the government was going to drop pheasants altogether, . . . we decided that the first thing we needed to do is raise a little money (and) do an economic impact study for the province.”
Upland Birds Alberta was formed to raise the money, perform the study, and find a way to put new energy into the province’s pheasant release program.
Grad and company raised nearly one quarter of a million dollars, opened a bank account and hired a consultant, Ken Bailey, formerly from Ducks Unlimited.
The group then went to work with DU, the Alberta Conservation Association and Nature Conservancy Canada to perform the study and develop a management strategy. They learned that every dollar spent on tags and birds spun into $9 in economic impact in areas where the birds were released.
UBA went on to purchase hybrid pheasants from a supplier in Wisconsin to supplement the pheasant program in Alberta, finding the hybrids to be a bit smaller and hardier than the ringnecks that were traditionally released here, said Grad.
There were still some questions, however, about who would raise the money and manage the program over the long term, he said.
Sustainable Resource Development really didn’t want it, said Grad. His group did not feel capable of taking the job. The ACA was ready, however, and has now signed an agreement with SRD to manage the release program in 2014, relieving the UBA of those responsibilities.
Grad believes the new agreement will turn things around for people who like to hunt pheasants, meaning there will be some reduction in future in the pressure they put on populations of native birds.