The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has authorized the release of thousands of pheasants onto state wildlife management areas ahead of next month’s youth hunting season.
Commission approval means Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will privately source 6,600 pheasants for release on six different wildlife management areas. Releases will take place shortly before the two-day youth season scheduled for Sept. 25-26 as part of a new program aimed at recruiting young hunters.
Recruitment, retention and reactivation, commonly called the “Three Rs” of hunting, is part of a national push to bolster hunter numbers. Early success in bagging a bird helps keep young hunters interested, state officials have said in support of the program. The state has also proposed partnering with local clubs to conduct hunts with a mentorship element.
Friday’s commission vote was set in motion by the Montana Legislature. House Bill 637 carried by Rep. Seth Berglee, R-Joliet, authorized $1 million annually in FWP funding to the Montana Department of Corrections for inmates at Montana State Prison to raise roughly 50,000 pheasants annually for release for hunters. Pheasant rearing will partially replace much of the prison dairy work program, which greatly scaled back after losing a major contract for its milk.
Both the legislation and the program before the commission process saw pushback due to low survivability of pen-raised pheasants, high per-bird cost of the program and questioning whether the money would be better spent on habitat. Some critics have also decried the state moving into “put-and-take” style hunting.
Montana once raised pheasants in state run facilities but abandoned that program in 1982 to focus funding on habitat for wild birds. Some privately-raised birds continued to be released on private shooting preserves and onto private land through a lightly-used state grant program.
The new stocking program is not an effort to increase wild bird populations, but purely to bolster numbers on wildlife management areas for the youth and subsequent general pheasant seasons.
Commissioner Patrick Byorth of Bozeman, the only remaining appointee of former Gov. Steve Bullock, was the lone commissioner to comment ahead of Friday’s final vote. He recalled learning to hunt with a .410 shotgun, struggling at first but working hard to become proficient. He cautioned that stocking pheasants for hunting seemed to be part of a movement in modern hunting that emphasizes success over sound wildlife management.
“Nobody said hunting is supposed to be easy,” he said, before casting the sole vote against the measure.
Pheasants will be released at Canyon Ferry and Lake Helena wildlife management areas in Region 3, Freezout and Beckman wildlife management areas in Region 4, Grant Marsh and Yellowstone wildlife management areas in Region 5, and Isaac Homestead Wildlife Management Area in Region 7.
Ken McDonald, FWP’s Wildlife Division administrator, told the commission the agency expects to have staff at those sites during the youth hunt to survey hunter success and satisfaction.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.