By Chris Lamphere

How do we get more people involved in hunting, especially small game?

Ultimately, that’s the question that a new state pheasant-stocking program aims to answer … or at the very least, shed some light on.

During the 2018 lame duck session of the Michigan Legislature, lawmakers passed a bill package that contained a one-time fund allocation of $260,000 to implement the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative.

Nick Green, public information officer with the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said this allocation was unique in the sense that the Legislature decided to use public resources to fund a hunting program — something that is virtually unheard of.

Ken Dalton, also known as Mr. Pheasident and a Michigan United Conservation Clubs member, was one of the primary advocates of this program and worked with MUCC and legislators to obtain funding.

“The true grassroots process of MUCC allowed me to run an idea through the organization, bring it in front of the membership and make my case,” Dalton said. “I saw a need to return hunters to Michigan’s fields, and this idea is one I hope will help alleviate license decline and further recruitment, retention and reactivation of new and old hunters.”

Green said the goal of the program is to collect information over two years that could be used to achieve improvements in three areas: recruitment of new hunters, retention of existing hunters and reactivation of hunters who are no longer active.

At the end of two years, they hope to apply this insight not only to pheasant hunting, but all hunting activities in Michigan.

“Small game hunting is one of the easiest ways to get someone new into hunting — it’s fairly easy, doesn’t require lots of specialized equipment and often yields success,” Green said. “MPHI and the Legislature’s funding are proof that we are missing, at least in part, something in southern Michigan that has long been a tradition: an active, vibrant pheasant population to hunt.”

How the program will work

The Michigan Association of Game Breeders — working in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources — will release pen-raised pheasants at State Game Area sites throughout southern Michigan.

Pheasants will be released at the following areas: St. Johns Marsh in St. Clair County; Pointe Mouillee in Monroe County; Crow Island in Saginaw County; Erie in Monroe County; Lapeer in Lapeer County; Pinconning in Bay County; Crane Pond in Cass County; Rose Lake in Clinton County; Cornish in Cass County; Minden City in Sanilac County; and Leidy Lake in St. Joseph County.

They will also release pheasants in Shiawassee and Allegan for special youth/apprentice events.

Al Stewart, upland game bird specialist for the DNR, said the releases will be divided into two periods: the October-November release period and December release period, coinciding with the pheasant season throughout most of southern Michigan.

In Pinconning, Crane Pond and Cornish, there will be no December releases because of pheasant hunting closures in those regions of the state, Stewart said.

There will be four releases per period, and they will be done outside legal shooting hours and on random days to avoid interfering with hunters.

Stewart said the program isn’t intended to increase pheasant populations in the release areas, which is why they will only be using roosters.

“Having a long-term impact is not the intent,” said Stewart, who added that pen-raised pheasants aren’t as hardy as wild birds, so they likely won’t last long enough to add to the population.

Following both years of the program, the DNR will mail out surveys to a group of randomly-chosen hunters that participated asking them about their experience.

The first year of the program, those who plan to hunt in the release areas will be asked to sign up for a free sharp-tail grouse/pheasant endorsement on their license, which would enable the DNR to contact them afterward with the survey if they are selected.

A bill currently is in the works that would create a specialized pheasant stamp to simplify the process of sending out the surveys, but at this time, it is still being considered by the Legislature.

While they haven’t yet ironed out all the details of the youth/apprentice hunts at Shiawassee and Allegan, Stewart said the basic idea is to pair youngsters or new hunters with experienced mentors in the field.

These events will be opportunities to collect more focused information about the hunters’ experience hunting in a controlled setting.

Stewart said it’s uncertain at this time what sort of results would be an indication the program is succeeding or failing; they first need to establish a baseline of relevant information.

Reception to the program

The idea of having a pheasant-stocking operation in Michigan isn’t a new one.

In the 1970s, the DNR ran a pheasant-stocking program but eventually discontinued it as a result of the prohibitive cost of raising the birds.

Bracco Italiano breeder and the Hunting Dog Podcast host Ron Boehme said the segment he produced on the MPHI program — which included an interview of Ken Dalton — was one of the few he’s done that elicited criticism from his audience.

He said the critics asked why the state would fund a program to stock pen-raised pheasants when they really should be focusing on improving habitat to increase pheasant populations, which have been on the decline for many years.

“I think that’s the thing people get confused about,” Boehme said. “This program isn’t trying to bring back pheasants; it’s trying to bring back hunters.”

Boehme grew up near Chicago and was exposed to hunting through the state’s pheasant-stocking program.

When Boehme learned more about the connection between pheasant hunting and the use of hunting dogs, he was hooked for life.

“It lit a fire in me that didn’t stop,” Boehme said. “I don’t know if I would have ever gotten involved if it wasn’t for that program.”

Boehme said having a place to hunt where there is a good chance of at least seeing a few birds could light the same fire and passion in other people as it did in him.

Pheasants Forever — a nationally-recognized group that focuses on improving wildlife habitats for the growth of pheasant populations — does not have a stance one way or the other on the MPHI program.

State Pheasants Forever Representative Bill Vander Zouwen said while their goal remains more on the side of restoring the natural abundance of pheasants, he doesn’t see any reason why their efforts can’t complement those of the MPHI program.

“Time will tell whether (the program is successful in its goals or not),” Vander Zouwen said. “I think hunter trends are a little more complicated, but this could certainly be an added value for pheasant hunters.”

What’s at stake?

DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason said within the next 17 to 30 years, we will see the extinction of small game hunting in Michigan.

It’s a sobering thought that seems a bit exaggerated, but if statistics on hunting trends are any indication, Mason’s prediction might not be far off.

While deer hunting remains the most popular form of hunting in Michigan, it is declining at a pace of about 2 to 3 percent a year due mostly to demographic changes, Mason said.

This decline has set off alarm bells throughout the hunting community for a number of years, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to what has happened to small game participation, which has decreased by about 50 percent in the last 10 years, Mason said.

“If we are concerned about the loss of deer hunters, we should be much more concerned about the loss in small game (hunters),” Mason said.

The decrease in small-game participation is a complicated issue involving multiple variables, including changes in license costs over time and decline of species such as pheasants, Mason said.

Although Mason isn’t yet convinced all the MPHI program goals are achievable, he’s excited about the possibility of exploring one factor shown to correlate with increased hunter retention and license-buying behaviors: success harvesting an animal.

“We want to get people out there trying,” Mason said. “To experience success in the appropriate places (in areas close to where they live, rather than several hours away).”

The MPHI program also has the potential to provide information they can use to appeal small game hunting to deer hunters, many of whom don’t participate in any other forms of hunting.

“The question will be whether or not we can diversify the interests of existing hunters,” Mason said. “That’s one of the derivative benefits of this. I think there are a lot of possibilities there.”

Another demographic where more small game hunters could be activated is among people with a deep interest to knowing where their food comes from, Mason said.

“The general public won’t support blood sports,” Mason said. “But when we talk about the value small game hunting has on the habitat, it connects with the non-game hunting public.”

Stewart agreed that the “locavore movement” is growing in popularity, especially among young professionals, and could potentially be a wellspring of new conservationists.

In general, Stewart said the MPHI program could help them market hunting in ways that are more accessible.

An example of this is Thanksgiving. Stewart said he enjoys watching the “light go on” in the heads of school kids when the source of the food they are eating comes into crystal clear relief.

“It’s a positive exposure to the source of the turkey,” Stewart said. “To see the guy wearing a funny hat and carrying a blunderbuss.”

Stewart said they should have initial data on the first year of the program available for public dissemination a few months after the pheasant season ends.

Photos by Tyler Butler