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Numbers of grassland birds like ring-necked pheasants are tied closely to the amount of habitat avaialble. Photo by Chris Young.

Habitat key for future of upland game

October 31, 2013 at 04:40 PM

The State Journal-Registerr

If you want to find rabbits, pheasants and quail when upland game hunting opens Saturday, you have to find habitat first.

“It all comes down to habitat — how much we can put out there and how well we manage what we have left,” said Stan McTaggart, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ new agriculture and grassland wildlife program manager.

McTaggart formerly was a district wildlife biologist based in Lacon covering Fulton, Putnam, Marshall, Stark and Woodford counties.

Two summers of drought sandwiched around a rainy, wet spring concerned biologists, who feared the weather would have a negative effect on nesting success.

But the weather is just a side issue compared with lack of available habitat in Illinois.

With corn prices high, farmers are under pressure to plant more acres, leaving fewer acres in grass for wildlife cover.

And conservation programs that provide rental payments in exchange for the idling of marginal or erosion-prone land are having a hard time keeping pace with commodity and land prices.

So, biologists must turn their attention to managing the grassland habitat that is available, keeping it suitable for upland game.

“Ideally we’d like to take it back to where we have birds and rabbits for everybody to chase,” McTaggart said. “But there is a long way between here and there. There is just so much ground to make up.”'

States of contrast

An estimated 17,427 hunters killed 29,396 wild pheasants during the 2012-13 season.

South Dakota is the top destination state for pheasant hunting, according to Pheasants Forever. Hunters there are expected to kill more than 1 million birds during the upland game-hunting season going on right now.

In addition to lots of pheasants, they also have access to 1.1 million acres of public hunting lands.

In Illinois both hunter and harvest numbers are up, but participation in pheasant hunting still pales in comparison with the state’s popular deer-hunting seasons.

Last year, DNR issued more than 330,000 permits for firearm deer hunting alone. Hunters took more than 99,000 deer during the traditional firearm season and more than 180,000 deer in all seasons.

Bobwhite hunters numbered 11,266 and harvested 47,175 wild quail.

DNR estimates 33,093 rabbit hunters killed 116,552 rabbits.

With land use changes over the past generation or so that have led to larger farms focusing on one or two crops, wildlife managers have had to adjust.

“You have to work with the programs you have available and make it so landowners will participate in those programs,” McTaggart said.

Uncertainty over the fate of the federal Farm Bill, still held up in Congress, isn’t helping.

“But typically commodity prices are cyclic,” he said. “There is a chance those prices could adjust back down and hopefully we will be ready with a Farm Bill with infrastructure in place to get more acres enrolled in conservation programs.”

Money matters

Illinois had about 1 million acres enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program as of Sept. 27, but one out of five of those was due to expire Sept. 30.

The numbers don’t reflect how many of those acres were re-enrolled or had their contracts extended.

McTaggart said there should be a threshold point where farmers can participate in conservation programs and not lose money.

“For most people, it boils down to dollars and cents,” McTaggart said. “There are some landowners that are motivated by the desire to work with conservation programs to directly improve things for wildlife.

“But for most people who have working farms and need to make a living, it boils down to dollars and cents, so we need to make it so it is not a loss to do the right thing for wildlife.”

Season dates, limits

Upland game hunting for rabbits, pheasants, Hungarian partridge and bobwhite quail opens Saturday statewide.

Hunting hours are sunrise to sunset.

Daily limits are:

Rabbit – 4
Cock pheasant – 2
Hungarian partridge – 2
Bobwhite – 8

Seasons close Jan. 8 in the north zone and Jan. 15 in the south zone.

Central Illinois hunters should check the zone maps in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations.

U.S. 36 divides north and south zones from the Indiana state line to Springfield. The line continues north on Illinois 29 to Pekin and then follows Illinois 9 from Pekin to Dallas City. The line then continues due west to the Mississippi River.

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO.

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