Photo by David Thielen, Unsplash.

February 1, 2023

The National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan, Second Addition – Implications for Illinois

Since introduction in the late 19th century, the ring-necked pheasant has been an important game bird in Illinois. Pheasants were introduced over much of North America but only established populations where grain farming was common on the landscape. They were especially well adapted to areas where diversified farming produced a patchwork of small fields of corn, oats, wheat, hay and pasture. These farms provided pheasants abundant food, nest cover, brood habitat and shelter from severe weather and predators.

The pheasant’s ability to thrive in cultivated landscapes allowed them occupy areas originally covered by tallgrass prairie, the favored habitat of the now state-endangered greater prairie-chicken. As prairies were converted to cropland, prairie-chickens declined or disappeared. Eventually, pheasants would occupy the niche once filled by prairie-chickens. But farming changed over time to become less suitable for pheasants.

A close-up of a ring-necked pheasant in a green wheat field.
Photo by Ray Harrington, Unsplash.

During World War I, increased grain production was required. Farmers began to use chemical fertilizers and relied less on legumes, such as clover and alfalfa, to supply nitrogen required to produce feed grains. This change reduced available nest cover and brood foraging habitat. Innovation continued after the war, and the Great Depression and Dust Bowl Era sparked new interest in soil conservation and the value of grasses and legumes in reducing soil erosion and maintaining soil productivity.

World War II again increased demand for feed grains. Farmers responded by increasing tillage and the use of herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers, which reduced available habitat for pheasants on farms. After the war, the demand for feed grains resulted in falling prices and a depressed farm economy. The United States Department of Agriculture responded by designing programs to reduce feed grain production and conserve soil resources. These large-scale programs were widely utilized by farmers to promote planting cropland to soil conserving grass/legume mixtures that substantially increased nest cover and brood habitat for pheasant. These programs came in various formats, rates of participation and acres affected, from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In most of the United States, pheasant abundance peaked during this period.

Wildlife biologists long recognized the relationship between diversified grain farming and pheasant abundance. Beginning in the 1930s, many investigations of pheasant ecology began in the Midwest where pheasant hunting was a major recreational pursuit. States including Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan formed the center of the range. Biologists in these states regularly communicated regarding pheasant research and management. In 1958, these communication were formalized with the formation of the Midwest Pheasant Council. Biologists now we’re able to periodically report research and management activities in their respective states.

Through the efforts of wildlife biologists, state resource agencies identified factors limiting pheasant abundance but had very limited resources to restore habitat. However, a focus of early research pointed to the potential of U.S. Department of Agricultura (USDA) farm bill conservation programs to affect largescale pheasant habitat restoration. The grain production control programs of the 1950s and 1960s produced record pheasant numbers in the Midwest. But in 1974 USDA embarked on a new method of dealing with crop overproduction that continues today, exporting feed grains around the world. More recently, corn for ethanol production has further increased demand for grain and increased prices.

However, demand for feed grains, even global demand, fluctuates over time. In the early 1980s, demand declined, and prices fell. Once again, USDA attempted to boost prices by offering a program to reduce production on marginal cropland, the Conservation Reserve Program. Recognizing the opportunity to restore grassland habitat, USDA provided the opportunity for state wildlife agencies to aid in designing the program.

After several meetings, the Midwest Pheasant Study Group began discussing development of a national wild pheasant conservation plan in 2006. The study group, composed of pheasant research and management biologists, was sanctioned by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. These efforts culminated in the first edition of the National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan. The plan was formally adopted by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in 2013. Because of changes in USDA policies and programs and acquisition of additional data regarding agricultural land use and pheasant ecology, the plan was refined, and a second edition was adopted in 2019.

The National Wild Pheasant Conservation Plan provides information about the current status of pheasants and pheasant hunting in the United States. Authors reported that 24 states currently support wild pheasant populations from the west coast to western New York and from the Canadian border south to the Texas panhandle and portions of New Mexico.

Pheasants are dependent on plant communities for food, shelter, nesting areas and brood foraging areas. Pheasants absolutely require undisturbed nest cover and brooding areas. They cannot continue to exist without them. Pheasants exhibit a “high turnover” survival strategy. They are short-lived with 70 to 80 percent mortality within the year of hatch. Thus, their continued existence is totally dependent on high reproductive success. Where pheasants exist, plant and invertebrate food sources are readily available. In most of the range, winter cover is limited. Good winter cover is provided by emergent wetlands, shrub thickets, shelter belts and unharvested corn. However, nest cover is the most critical habitat component influencing abundance of pheasants.

Under a gray overcast sky, a tan grassland sways in the wind. On the horizon are a few trees and shrubs.
Photo by John Cole.

Nest cover can be simply defined as herbaceous habitat that provides at least 10 inches of residual cover or new growth when hens begin nesting in mid-April and remains undisturbed until at least August 1 when most nesting is complete. Small grains, pasture and hay are used for nesting but nest success is much lower due to untimely disturbance (harvest or grazing). Research suggests that pheasant numbers reach maximum levels in landscapes with approximately 50 percent of the area in suitable nest cover, a level that may be reached on individual farms or public lands but not practical on a large scale.

Pheasant plan restoration goals are based on based on estimated acres of pheasant nest cover currently available and the additional acres needed to reach population goals. Goal setting consists of four steps. Choose a pheasant population index that depicts state trends during the time that the Conservation Reserve Program has been available (1990 to 2019). Estimate the acres of nest habitat (CRP, pasture, grass hay, alfalfa and small grains) within the pheasant range each year from 1999 to 2019. Calculate an index of productivity (successful nests/acre) for available nest cover each year. Use the differences between past and current habitat and population indices to determine appropriate restoration goals.

Many states, including Illinois, used the North American Breeding Bird Survey as their index of pheasant abundance through the CRP era (1990 to 2019). Acres of nest cover were estimated using USDA’s Census of Agriculture data. Based on studies of nesting conducted in the Midwest and Great Plains between 1986 and 2020, an index of productivity was calculated for pasture, grass hay, alfalfa, small grains and CRP. These estimates were calculated for each of the 24 states with wild pheasant populations.

In a field to the left, grass hay is bundled in bales. To the right is a field of uncut hay.
Photo by Pagarau, Pixabay.

In Illinois, as in most states, CRP acres produced the most successful nests (0.518/acre). Nest success in other habitats were pasture (0.35/acre), small grain (0.37/acre), alfalfa (0.19/acre) and grass hay (0.39/acre). For this reason and because CRP is the most feasible means of adding nest cover, an estimate of acres needed to reach population goals is expressed as Conservation Reserve Program Acre Equivalents (CAE). In other words, nest cover acres equal to CRP in productivity.

During the 1990 to 2019 plan period, habitat quantity and quality (based on CAE’s) peaked in the 5 years beginning in 2009 whereas pheasant abundance (based on BBS surveys) peaked in the 5 years beginning in 1991 in Illinois. Conservation Reserve Acre Equivalents have declined 6 percent and pheasant abundance has declined 84 percent from peak average values to the recent period (2015 to 2019). CRP acres were responsible for most pheasant production. The disparity between nest habitat and pheasant numbers probably results from two factors. In our state, many acres of CRP have been not been managed to maintain cover quality. In addition, our early CRP enrollments were almost entirely whole field enrollments. In the recent period, most enrollments have produced strips of nest cover such as filter strips and field borders. These small tracts are less productive primarily due to increased nest predation documented by studies around the Midwest.

Illinois has about 55 counties in northern and central Illinois with wild pheasant populations. These counties contain 425,000 acres of CRP, 413,000 acres of pasture, 18,500 of small grains, 162,000 acres of alfalfa and 64,000 acres of grass hay. This represents about 589,292 acres of CAE nest cover. To reach a goal population level, 311,685 acres of CAE acres must be added for a total 900,977 acres of nest cover. This habitat should support a population where 150,000 to 160,000 roosters could be harvested annually if hunter numbers rebounded to levels seen in the early 1990s (70,000 to 80,000).

A harvested field supports a second planting of small green plants during the fall to help provide cover and sustenance for wildlife and improve soil composition. In the background are a few trees on the horizon.
Cover crops growing on a harvested field. Photo by USDA NRCS South Dakota, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Probably the most encouraging statement in the plan for Illinois hunters is the final statement in the Principles and Policy section near the end of the document. Item 6 states that “pheasants are not a shared resource among states so policies that favor habitat creation in some states over others should be discouraged.” Plan authors strongly support policies that provide benefits equitably across states comprising the pheasant range.

A prime example is the use of cost of enrollment (soil rental rate) as a factor in accepting or rejecting offers. States with more productive soils, like Illinois, are at a disadvantage in getting acres accepted. This must be changed if Illinois is to receive a reasonable share of nest habitat through CRP.

The recent adoption of cover crops provides a potential opportunity to add nest cover in the form of small grains and legumes in areas where row crops predominate. Small grain/legume mixes could be planted and allowed to stand during the nesting season by compensating farmers for forgone production in those fields. This short-term program could add nest cover in areas where Fields are ineligible for CRP.

John Cole grew up in Bradley, Illinois (Kankakee County). He graduated from SIU Carbondale with BA in 1968 then served two years in the U.S. Army as medical technologist at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. After graduating from SIU Carbondale with an MS in 1973 he began to work for the then Illinois Department of Conservation as District Wildlife Biologist, headquartered in Gibson City in east-central Illinois. In 1993, Cole became the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Ag and Grassland program manager in Springfield, working there until his retirement in 2008.

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Question: I have 8 acres of hilly, somewhat overgrown property that is currently unused waste. I wish to use it for limited personal recreation (a walk path etc) but would also like to give back with some unobtrusive conservation wildlife measures and financial assistance for cleanup and leveling the slopes. Any thoughts or suggestions. Thanks in advance.