Idaho once rivaled the Dakotas when it came to wild pheasant populations and hunting quality.
Now, Idaho doesn't hold a candle to the corn-covered Midwest. Wild birds are still scattered around the potato state, but they are few. Idaho Fish and Game and Pheasants Forever want to change that.
They are trapping, transplanting and tracking wild pheasants in eastern Idaho in an effort to increase the upland bird population.
"It looks like really good wild pheasant habitat," said Curtis Hendricks, Fish and Game wildlife biologist. "But we're not seeing the wild population of pheasants that we expect or that have historically been in this area."
The project involved shin-high traps planted in an Ammon field last spring.
The wire and wood boxes hopefully held the hens Jared Finn wants.
"You never know what's going to happen or what's going to be there," said Finn, Pheasants Forever habitat co-chair. "It's a lot better to see five or six birds in one trap than no birds in the trap."
There were no birds in the trap at the end of the muddy stubble field, but the trap tucked in rows of corn had a handful of hens in it.
Each volunteer tucked a bird under his arm while the biologist fitted the feathered neck with a quarter-sized radio collar.
The birds were moved 45 miles northwest to Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area in an attempt to increase the area's wild pheasant population.
"I truly believe that these birds will make it," Hendricks said. "Hopefully all of them, and for those that might not make it, we'll have some answers as to what happened."
The birds were transferred on the same day they were trapped and tagged. Finn dropped the truck tailgate at the Mud Lake Wildlife Management Area and pulled the crates to the edge of the bed.
The birds were moved onto a piece of land between Mud Lake WMA and Camas National Wildlife Refuge.
Pheasants Forever purchased the land in 2010, and Fish and Game took over the property this year, adding it to the Mud Lake WMA. The result is a contiguous piece of protected land totaling more than 22,000 acres.
"With the wetland values on it, it will be the largest wetland managed complex in the Upper Snake Region, so it's really exciting," Hendricks said.
Other areas in the state struggle with low wild pheasant numbers, and trapping and transplanting hens is one way to jumpstart populations.
To supplement the wild population, about 16,000 pen-raised pheasants are released annually for hunts in Idaho.
While that may seem like a lot, it's a shadow of Idaho's past populations. There were an estimated 540,600 pheasants harvested in Idaho in 1953, compared with 63,200 pheasants harvested in 2011.
Fish and Game would like to see the wild pheasant populations increase because stocking pen-raised birds is expensive, and hunters prefer pursuing wild birds.
That's why a lot of interested eyes are watching the Mud Lake experiment.
Finn thought about future hunts and penned birds versus wild birds as he opened the crates.
"I've seen birds released, but they've been pen-raised and these are wild, so when they flew, they flew really well," Finn said. "Once you do something and see the success, it's just a good feeling."
A few months later, that good feeling faded with the beep of a radio collar. It was beeping at a quick pace. Hendricks was moving just as quickly. He knew three birds were nesting, but the rapid beep meant one was dead, and the beep was not coming from a nest.
Hendricks tracked the collar and found the pheasant dead inside a hay bale.
"We're in the middle of the first cutting of alfalfa in the Mud Lake area," Hendricks said. "It looks like this hen didn't make it out of the alfalfa field in front of the swather."
Half of the collared birds were found dead, including the hen in the hay bale. The bird probably hunkered down in the alfalfa field unaware of harvest and couldn't flush faster than the machine.
"We want to answer questions and that's a real answer," Hendricks said. "It sheds some light on what's going on in the area, and it's one of the dangers the birds face out here. We've learned that it's a hard life being a pheasant in the wild."
8 WORDIES OR LINKTOLYLYLYL
8First reported at IdahoStatesman.com