Utah outfitter releases pheasants to revive hunting

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2004

LOGAN, Utah The glory days of pheasant hunting on the Cache may be over, but don't tell that to Dustin Shields.

The manager of Spring Creek Outfitters spent part of last week's evening releasing 100 pen-raised pheasants at the Bud Phelps Wildlife Management Area. Spring Creek was donating the birds to the state and general public, Shields said, because ''we want to create some excitement here in the valley and get some guys who haven't been hunting out again with their families.''

Those 50 roosters and 50 hens burst out of their boxes and quickly found cover in the fields at the WMA. The knock on pen-raised pheasants has been that they don't survive long afield and tend to look shabby after being cooped up (they often pluck one another's feathers) but these roosters had nice tails and brought a ray of light to what has otherwise been a bleak hunt.

''It wasn't what I would call a good pheasant hunt by any means,'' said Division of Wildlife Resources Officer Verl Hanchett, who helped organize the release. ''Some areas had birds and some didn't. It just wasn't a good hatch this year.''

From many hunters' perspective, lack of available public land to hunt as well as lack of decent habitat in general has been killing interest. Also, according to Hanchett, ''the number of predators we have now is a big problem,'' and has hurt upland game populations.

But Shields, who oversees Spring Creek property in Young Ward adjacent to the Bud Phelps area, along with land in Cache Junction and Cornish, refuses to give up on pheasant hunting in Cache Valley. He intends to release 150 roosters and up to 400 hens this year, followed by as many as 1,000 birds next year, to subsidize the local population.

''There's not a lot of money for the division to do this or Pheasants Forever to do this, so I just want to help out,'' said Shields, who grew up in Tooele. ''A lot of guys went out the last four or five years and didn't see birds. I want to get Cache Valley back to where kids are rubbing their guns the night before the hunt like I did.''

DWR's Hanchett, who picked the locations to release the birds, pointed out that ''There's a lot of good cover here,'' adding that ''if these hens can somehow adapt to the wild in the next two weeks, their chances of survival are pretty good.''

''It's gotta help some,'' he said of the release. ''That's how they originally got pheasants started in Utah, was planting them.''

It remains to be seen whether the newcomers can avoid the hawks who nest in giant trees at the WMA, the foxes and other small predators on the ground, and the hunters who were combing the fields even as they were released. Other birds Shields has planted ''are surviving, and the hens are bringing up broods,'' he noted, so he is optimistic.

One of every 10 roosters, which retail for about $16 apiece, was fitted with a red legband. Hunters are asked to call in when they take one of these birds to claim a prize and so that Shields can ''get a feel for how these birds are really doing in the field.''

In a discussion with DWR officials and Pheasants Forever representatives this week about how to boost the interest of local youth in hunting, Shield's answer to nearly every suggestion was ''We can help with that.'' Shields suggested that he could plant 1,000 roosters on the Bud Phelps land and charge hunters a $5 access fee to recoup some of his investment, but Hanchett pointed out that since hunters already pay for their licenses, that would amount to a double charge.

Some of the other ideas discussed may be more feasible, including Shield's proposal to reward high-achieving students with guided hunts, or Hanchett's goal of starting trapshooting clubs for the local high schools at the Cache Valley Hunter Education Center.

One popular local youth hunt, sponsored by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, is now in its third year, indicating that interest is keen.

''Anything to get the youth involved is great,'' said Pheasants Forever member Mark Merritt. ''The whole plan for Pheasants Forever is to create memories that last a lifetime.''

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