How Non-Native Pheasants Protect American Biodiversity
The bird—one often raised in captivity and released for the express purpose of being shot—is responsible for providing wildlife habitat across much of the America’s heartland
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
For my 40th birthday, in December, I asked my wife, Virginia, for something special. I wanted her to take advantage of the hunter-education classes that had moved online due to the pandemic to obtain her first hunting license so she could join me in the field.
Hunting is a passion of mine. It’s fun, it puts healthy meat on our table, and I enjoy the challenge and tradition. But most of all, I love wild animals, and participating in the sport is the most meaningful way to save them.
Because individual hunters contribute significantly to conservation, the most powerful thing any of us can do for the cause is recruit additional hunters. And the most effective way you can instill future commitment from a first-timer is to ensure that their first hunt is a success. But my birthday falls on December 15—well after the end of general hunting seasons. And since we weren’t yet vaccinated, I needed to find a hunt with plenty of animals and opportunities, yet one that was safe and responsible for us to participate in.
A friend recommended R&R Pheasant Hunting, a ranch in Seneca, South Dakota, 650 miles away from our home in Bozeman, Montana. Due to the pandemic, we opted to drive, and the owner assured me his property was following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Plus, there had been so many cancellations over the past season that the preserve’s pen-raised birds were still plentiful. More importantly, R&R is a prime example of the successful partnership between private landowners, taxpayers, hunters, and nonprofit organizations that uses pheasant hunting to restore wildlife habitat across the country. Not only would Virginia and I have ample opportunities to find the birds, but it would be a perfect chance for her to get her hands dirty in the pursuit of wildlife conservation.
Where Are Pheasants From?
Pheasants are native to China but were introduced to Europe by the Romans. It’s thought that pheasants may have arrived in England in the 11th century, where they decorated the gardens of the wealthy. The advent of firearms and the economic means for leisure time popularized bird hunting in England during the 1700s, so gamekeepers began breeding the birds. Today, bird hunting in England is synonymous with the pheasant, and around 25 million of them are released there each year.
Americans who hunted pheasants in the United Kingdom sought to bring the birds to these shores for the purpose of sport hunting. But it wasn’t until the American consul general in Shanghai, Owen Denny, shipped 38 pheasants to his brother’s farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1881 that the breeding of pheasants began in America. Ten years later, on the opening day of America’s first-ever pheasant season, hunters shot 50,000 birds. That success prompted would-be pheasant hunters to introduce them across much of the rest of the country.
A prey species, pheasants try to stick to cover and will run away from threats through that cover unless startled. When they can be convinced to take off, they fly at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. The challenge those speeds represent explain the popularity of pheasant hunting.
Pheasants, which are about the size and shape of a chicken, eat insects and seeds and live in mixed habitats like brushy meadows, hedgerows, marshes, and areas where woods and fields meet. In other words, they prefer places that look like much of the agricultural Midwest. The first pheasants were introduced to South Dakota in 1908, and by 1936, the state had an estimated population of 12 million of them.
One of the reasons for the bird’s success is that hunting doesn’t reduce population numbers, even in seasons where the take exceeds one million birds in a single state. In fact, hunters could harvest as much as 93 percent of pre-hunt roosters without hurting the population as a whole, according to Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving wildlife habitat.
That’s because hunters only shoot roosters, not hens—in flight, it’s easy to distinguish the brightly colored, long-tailed roosters from the drab, short-tailed females—and each male impregnates an entire harem of females before hunting season begins. In turn, each of those hens lays seven to fifteen eggs.
Even without hunting, pheasants don’t live long. Predators like foxes, raccoons, skunks, feral cats, hawks, and owls all feed on them. But the biggest source of pheasant mortality isn’t humans or natural predators, it’s simply winter weather. According to Pheasants Forever, with mild weather and good habitat, winter survival rates can be as high as 95 percent. In a worst-case scenario, with severe weather and poor habitat, survival rates can fall to 20 percent.
Which brings us to why shooting an introduced, pen-raised, non-native species helps save American wildlife.
Farming and Habitat
Farming is a fickle, challenging business that is often highly dependent on weather, so farmers are incentivized to maximize profits in good years by chasing the highest yields per acre of land possible. In 2019, a crop like corn could, in a best-case scenario on a high-yield farm, be expected to pay $738 per acre, with an additional $80 per acre added by federal aid programs, for a total possible revenue of $818 per acre. Farmers can’t add growing seasons, and the price of their crops is out of their control. So the best way for farmers to increase revenue is to plant as much of their lands with a crop that produces the highest yields.
That’s what’s led to modern, monolithic farming practices, where entire regions are turned over to a single crop. If corn grows best in a given region, then to maximize revenue, every inch of every acre of every farm in that region—and in a place like Seneca, South Dakota, nearly every acre is a farm acre—needs to be planted with corn. Factors like interest rates, commodities prices, and trade policies make the picture I’m painting here much more complicated in the real world, but you get the idea: generally speaking, what’s good for farming is bad for wildlife.
Turning every square inch of land over to a single crop decimated wildlife habitat across the Midwest. And wildlife, including the pheasant, began to disappear. From a high of 16 million birds in 1945, South Dakota’s pheasant population fell to a low of 1.4 million in 1976. And with the pheasant, other wildlife disappeared, too. The population of deer in the state fell from nearly 700,000 in the 1930s to around 200,000 in the 1980s.
It also turns out that factors outside a farmer’s control—those pesky interest rates and commodities prices—can swing fortunes against them, especially when they’re invested so heavily in producing a single one of those commodities. That’s what led to the farm crisis of the 1980s, which for a time threatened the future of independent farming in this country.
One of the ways the Reagan administration tackled the crisis was with something called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). First authorized by the Food Security Act of 1985, it uses taxpayer dollars to pay farmers not to farm certain parts of their land, attempting to address problems like wildlife habitat, erosion, and even surplus commodity stocks in one fell swoop.
Today the CRP program protects about 20 million acres nationwide. Rates vary from $10 to $300 per acre, depending on the location and ecological importance of that acre, with the average payment coming in at $82 per acre. That’s been enough to convince a lot of farmers not to develop marginal croplands, but it only amounts to about 10 percent of the per-acre revenue that’s possible with high-yield practices.
The CRP budgets have also become a political football over the years. As farmland slowly returned to natural habitat after 1985, pheasant numbers slowly rebounded. By 2007, the CRP program covered 1.5 million acres of land in South Dakota, and the wild-pheasant population reached 12 million birds. As CRP rates fell, though, some farmers were forced to start farming land formerly protected under the program. In 2019, only 1.1 million acres were enrolled in the CRP program, and pheasant numbers in the state fell to 7.7 million wild birds.
On the Ground
“CRP doesn’t pay for trees,” says Sal Roseland, who started converting his multigenerational family farm into a pheasant preserve in 2002. R&R, the South Dakota ranch that Virginia and I visited in December, is now one of the most successful operations in the state. Roseland guided us on a two-day hunt across his 18,000-acre property.
Pointing out the various features that make up good pheasant habitat, he explained that while pheasants nest in dense grass and crops, and use places like cattail sloughs for cover, much of that can become inaccessible to the birds in winter if the land gets blanketed and flattened by heavy snowfall. In addition to reduced CRP acreage, several severe winters since 2007 have contributed to the decline in South Dakota pheasant populations.
The Roselands run cattle, which eat grass and grain. To develop good pheasant habitat, Roseland converted much of his ranch into wild grassland (that the cows are kept off of), left tree belts intact and marshes undrained, and planted crops like milo, which is one of the grains found in commercial birdseed. Not only does that provide a high-energy food source for the birds, but milo’s thick, corn-like stalks are able to stand up to heavier weather than grass alone can, making it valuable cover for pheasants and other wild animals.
Walking the R&R ranch, it’s rare not to see a hawk, an eagle, or an owl flying somewhere in your field of vision. Head into heavier cover, and Roseland’s dogs kick up nearly as many deer as they do birds. The marshland is dotted by muskrat nests. This natural ideal stands in contrast to most other farmland on the Great Plains, where rows of crops stretch from one horizon to the other, choking out any other form of life.
The Roselands care about wildlife, but what enabled them to create this haven wasn’t just good intentions, it was good income. A two-day hunt at the ranch costs $1,500 per hunter, and Roseland says that he and his wife, Kelly, host about 800 hunters a season. On top of the CRP payments, that amounts to an additional $66 per acre, which is still not enough to offset the money that could be made from just plowing everything under.
Fortunately, additional help is available. Seeds for Roseland’s milo are donated by a local supplier, who works with Pheasants Forever. Since 1982, that organization has created or enhanced 15.8 million acres of wildlife habitat across North America. Made up of local chapters, the organization funds thousands of annual projects, each responding uniquely to local needs. On Roseland’s ranch, that might mean milo seeds; elsewhere, it might be the outright acquisition of property for the purpose of rehabilitation and public access. Pheasants Forever has worked with public-land-management agencies to set aside 187,000 acres of protected land for public access, and 138,000 people pay annual membership fees in the organization that start at $35 per year. Ninety-one percent of those members are hunters. Because good pheasant habitat is a healthy, natural ecosystem, Pheasants Forever has also invested in programs like pollinator restoration and planting vast swaths of milkweed across the Midwest, a crucial monarch-butterfly migration region.
None of that money would exist if there weren’t birds to shoot.
Wild Versus Raised Birds
Every pheasant on this continent is a result of human introduction. The initial push in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in populations that now propagate in the wild. But as the numbers of those birds collapsed in the 1960s and 1970s, state governments sought to sustain hunting activity, and notably the economic boon it brings to wildlife conservation, by raising and releasing large quantities of pheasants before each hunting season.
Those early programs fostered hunting opportunities, but raising birds in covered pens where they were safe from predation and fattened up on easy, rich food sources didn’t exactly produce good fliers. Hunters dubbed the penned birds “ditch chickens,” and complained they just weren’t any fun to chase.
That changed in the 1980s, when private breeders began experimenting by crossbreeding different varieties of pheasants and improving the conditions in which they were raised. One of the largest pheasant breeders, Bill MacFarlane, calls his birds “Viagra pheasants” and says they’re “full of pep and a sense of urgency.”
What Roseland’s customers pay for when they visit R&R is opportunity. While finding a pheasant on public land can take a considerable amount of hiking and involves no sure outcomes (not to mention a daily limit of three birds if you are lucky), hunters walking Roseland’s ranch will have plenty of chances to take a shot and no limit on the number of birds they can bag.
That is a perfect formula for a successful first hunt. When Virginia and I visited R&R in December, temperatures were hovering in the single digits, and high winds combined with light precipitation to blow ice crystals at our exposed faces. That late in the year, the remaining birds were the wariest ones, flying away well outside of shooting distances. Working with Roseland, we eventually developed a strategy: Virginia and I would walk far ahead of Roseland and his dogs, hopefully surprising the birds into flight as they ran away from the dogs and into us. That worked. We drove home after the second day with 30 birds in our cooler—more than enough to keep making meals of them three months later.
Is that too easy? Some would argue so, and there are more folks hunting on public land in South Dakota than on private land. But across the state, there are a couple hundred other preserves. And just like Roseland’s, those preserves are providing wild habitat on private land, while the hunters on them are helping pay for conservation on the state’s public land. In 2017 in South Dakota, hunters on private land shot 283,254 birds, while 828,700 pheasants were shot on public land.
Three Billion Birds Gone
Are pheasants invasive? Scientists don’t believe that they create competition for native species, but they do fill a valuable role in our ecosystems as a prey species. More importantly, the money they bring in from hunters is being used to fight widespread habitat loss. In the past 50 years, 25 percent of America’s native birds have disappeared. Since 2009, some 53 million acres of native grasslands—equivalent to the size of Kansas—have vanished from the Great Plains.
In response, Pheasants Forever has kicked off a $500 million initiative to create nine million acres of new wildlife habitat across the country and to acquire 75,000 acres for permanent protection and public access. How? The organization is trying to create 1.5 million new hunters.
One of those new hunters is my wife. Before visiting the Roselands’ ranch, Virginia was squeamish about the idea of shooting an animal, and nervous that her experience at gun ranges wouldn’t translate to safety in the field. But after just two days chasing birds, she’s hooked. We’re already making plans to hunt public-land birds here in Montana together this fall, and are hoping we can make the trip to R&R an annual birthday tradition. And all the additional license fees, hunting-equipment sales, organization memberships, and private-land revenues Virginia will generate across her lifetime will fund habitat restoration and protection, as well as help protect the avian species that live across our country. Not bad for one birthday.