Three decades ago, people walking along fence rows or through alfalfa fields commonly kicked up pheasants, and Utah hunters harvested a rec-ord number of the colorful Asian birds.
But today pheasants are scarce throughout the West as factories, housing developments, freeways and changing farming techniques have cut into their habitat. Several groups are working to restore the birds to their splendor of the 1940s and 1950s.Dean Mitchell, upland game biologist at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said pheasants have lost roughly 30 percent of their habitat in Utah alone in the last 30 years. Last year, Utah hunters harvested a record-low 80,000 birds, a sharp contrast to the record-high 300,000 taken in 1958.
"The pheasant population being down is not unique to Utah," Mitchell said. "The western United States in general is experiencing a decline. Most of that is attributed to the loss of habitat."
Pheasants had no trouble adapting to North America when the American consulate released about two dozen birds from China in Oregon's Willamette Valley in the 1890s. They thrived in the Northwest, and seven years after the first flock was introduced, Oregon hunters brought down about 50,000 ringneck pheasants.
Other states, including Utah, were impressed with Oregon's success and introduced flocks of their own. David Lockwood, western field representative for Pheasants Forever, said from his home in Boise, Idaho, that pheasants are found in 39 of the 48 contiguous states and have been spotted in portions of Mexico.
"They're a pretty adaptable species," Lockwood said. "Their reproductive capability is fabulous."
Mitchell said Utah was among the states in the early 1900s that sought to copy Oregon and by the 1930s and 1940s pheasants occupied most of the available habitat in Utah. They also thrived in the wetlands around the Great Salt Lake.
"We've seen somewhat of a downhill slide in pheasants since then," Mitchell said.
In recent years, pheasants have been no match for changing farming practices and urban development. High water around the Great Salt Lake inundated about 300,000 acres of prime pheasant habitat in the mid-1980s, although much of the land is recovering now that the water is receding, Mitchell said.
He also said that many western farmers have done away with flood irrigation and filled in ditch banks that had been pheasant havens.
"All the vegetation that's associated with the ditch banks is gone," he said. "That's where pheasants used to nest, feed and survive the winter."
Also, larger farms mean fewer fence rows where pheasants can escape from large combines, and even the time of year and the way farmers mow fields has led to their demise.
Mitchell said that in the 1940s and 1950s, farmers would harvest alfalfa fields in mid-June, but current practice calls for mowing fields in late May or early June, which is the peak of the pheasant hatch. But neither Mitchell nor Lockwood is pointing a finger.
"You can't blame the farmer," Lockwood said. "One of the things that needs to be pointed out is these farmers need to make a living."
Still, wildlife officials and groups like Pheasants Forever are promoting changes in farming techniques to help pheasants. Mitchell said farmers are encouraged to mow fields in rows, rather than in circles, to allow pheasants to escape mowing machines.
Farmers also are encouraged to plant wind breaks and to take advantage of federal programs that allow them to leave some of their land idle.
"It's still not a lot in the big picture of things, but it is a step in the right direction," Lockwood said. "Unquestionably, our efforts are doing some good. We've gotten a lot of help from Mother Nature, too, because we've had mild winters. But we also can take some of the credit for it."