Upland Review 2019

The 2019 edition of Upland Review is available online! This free online magazine  details the prior year accomplishments of the Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever chapter in Walla Walla, Washington, and includes a few short stories of hunting the 2018 upland bird season and conservation.  Check it out!

Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!

Haying Best Management Practices for Wildlife

Farming and habitat practices to maintain healthy CRP and alfalfa stands provides significant nesting and brood rearing benefits to upland game birds, fawning areas for deer, and nesting and roosting habitat for wild turkey in the early spring and summer. Long, overhanging grasses provide nesting cover while broad-leaf plants like alfalfa and other native forbs provide insect forage for fledgling broods and hens. These stands draw and hold birds but have been called “ecological traps” in areas where haying regularly occurs.

The term ecological trap refers to a beneficial condition that attracts wildlife, but results in additive mortality, affecting the population overall. Quality CRP and alfalfa stands fit the scenario well where haying normally occurs during nesting season.

As haying equipment approaches, a hen pheasant may not vacate eggs or chicks, rather hunker down and use her camouflage for protection as a tractor passes by. This leaves birds vulnerable to the following mower which may be offset from the tractor. Likewise, small mammals and deer fawns use similar camouflage techniques and experience similar vulnerabilities to upland birds.

Best Management Practices

To minimize the potential hazardous effects of haying on wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has developed a few simple best management practices.

1) Defer haying. Apply and maintain at least two of the following management actions specifically for improving or protecting grassland functions for target wildlife species.

  • Do not cut hay on at least 1/3 of the hay acres each year. Idle strips or blocks must be at least 30 feet wide.
  • For at least 1/3 of the hay acreage, hay cutting must be either before and/or after the primary nesting or fawning seasons based on state established dates for the targeted species.
  • Increase forage heights after mowing to state specified minimum heights for the targeted species on all hayed acres.

2) For all haying during the nesting/fawning season implement at least two of the following to flush wildlife from hay fields during the mowing operation:

  • A flush bar attachment will be required on the mower (see figure below).
  • All mowing will be done during daylight hours.
  • Haying pattern:
    • Begin on one end of the field and work back and forth across the field, OR;
    • Begin in the center of the field and work outward.

Following these simple practices can greatly reduce unintentional wildlife mortality, further increasing the benefits of environmentally friendly farming.

flushing bar

Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

 

Upland Review

I developed a magazine with the idea of showcasing the annual activities and accomplishments of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever, Chapter 258, through photo essay. I also included a couple additional hunting articles.

I retain the magazine as an independent publication with a plan of developing it into a free online magazine to showcase fledgling outdoor writers and photographers, and the beauty of upland bird hunting.

Give it a read at Upland Review.

Migratory Bird Treaty Act: 100 Years of Federal Protection

2018 marks the 100th year of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (Act); one of the most influential laws in history that is critically important for protecting the variety of songbirds and raptors that we enjoy in North America. The Act prohibits take (killing), possession, import, export, transport, sale, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. What this means, is that no one can lawfully kill (intentionally or accidentally), or even reach down and collect a shed feather or take an abandoned nest from a non-game, migratory bird species.

Songbird species like cardinals, finches, juncos, and warblers typically come to mind as protected under the Act, but the Act actually protects about 1,000 species.

The Act came to be in response to the popularity of colorful bird feathers adorning hats and clothing dating back to the 1800s. The feather trade was tremendous and unregulated, and at the end of the century, several waterfowl species were hunted into extinction. Soon to follow were species like the passenger pigeon (photo below by James St. John), which was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world, with migratory flocks consisting of possibly billions of birds.

Ectopistes_migratorius_(passenger_pigeon) by James St John

The first legislation protecting migratory birds, the Lacey Act, was passed in 1900, and still stands today. The Lacey Act prohibits the sale of poached game across state boundaries. The Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Act was passed in 1913 protecting migratory birds from being hunted during their spring migration; however, this act was soon ruled unconstitutional. In 1916, The United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain in which the two countries agreed to stop all hunting of insectivorous birds and to establish specific hunting seasons for game birds. Then in 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed as a means to implement the treaty with Great Britain.

The next major milestones following the creation of the Act came in 1970 when US courts began prosecuting oil, timber, mining, and utility companies for “take”. Though not directly targeting wildlife, these industries incidentally cause millions of bird deaths (“incidental take”) each year that could have been avoided with simple infrastructure modifications, according to the US Department of Justice (Audubon Society). Then, in 2001, President Clinton ordered all relevant federal agencies to consider migratory bird conservation as part of their regular decision making.

As one of the oldest federal wildlife regulations, the Act has saved millions, if not billions of birds, according the Audubon Society. One of the most obvious successes is the snowy egret (photo below by Frank Schulenburg), which was hunted to near extinction, but has rebounded splendidly. Over time, however, the Act has been tweaked here and there. In its final term, the Obama administration issued a legal opinion stating that the Act applied to the incidental killing of birds. Incidental take includes scenarios such as birds striking power lines or wind turbines and falling into open oil storage containers, but on a more literal note, a person unintentionally hitting a bird with a car. However, the Trump Administration has suspended that opinion, according to NPR.

snowy egret by Frank Schulenburg

So, what does this mean? It means that industry may no longer be held liable for the accidental death of a bird due to energy extraction such as timber harvest, or mountaintop removal mining. This also means it is no longer a crime to accidentally kill a bird while driving to work. While incidental take is nearly impossible to avoid or completely enforce, there are potential consequences to repealing industrial liability.

The Audubon Society cites the US Fish and Wildlife Services estimates of power lines killing up to 175 million birds a year, communications towers rack up to 50 million kills, and uncovered oil waste pits account for up to another 500,000 to 1 million. Data on wind turbines are harder to come by, but current estimates hover at about 300,000 bird fatalities a year. It is reasonable that the Trump Administration finds incidental take to be government overreach, but without potential repercussions for industry-related migratory bird deaths, entities may be less likely to implement costly best management practices that could reduce incidental take resulting from daily operations.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, was cited saying the Obama Administration interpretation of the Act was too sweeping, while the Trump Administration interpretation is far too narrow. Although the future of the Act and its application is uncertain regarding incidental take, the Act has survived a passel of presidential administrations. Barring the abolishment of the Act entirely, the basis of the act, prohibiting intentional take, remains intact and is certain to provide continued protection for migratory birds.

For more information, keep an eye out on the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society websites.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Audubon Society

Energy Development Act Meets Habitat Conservation (Maybe)

I am a fish and wildlife biologist. I get my kicks (and earn a living) assessing environmental impacts on, and managing and restoring fish and wildlife habitat. I track tightly within my lane of technical, scientific expertise, and typically leave the politics to folks with a desire to argue and decipher that sort of thing. However, in 2017, a bill was introduced that the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) brought to my attention.

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (HR 825) is a bill that establishes two main authorities; 1) continued authorization of the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970; and 2) the authority of the subject act.

HR 825 sounds dangerous, because it is. While “renewable energy” typically includes sources such as timber, hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal power, developing energy-harnessing opportunities on public resources has potential impacts to public use and fish and wildlife. It is prudent to point out that Section 4 of HR 825 includes a clause stating that potential development areas identified by the Secretary of the Interior must be coordinated with appropriate State, Tribal, and local governments to “…avoid or minimize conflict with habitat for animals and plants, recreation, and other uses…”

I don’t intend to hang up on possible impacts here, but I want to draw attention the benefits of the bill. Section 7 of HR 825 (Disposition of Revenues) is aimed directly at habitat conservation. A Treasury fund for this Act will be established to deposit any fees or revenues from energy production that may be used for “restoring and protecting…fish and wildlife habitat for affected species; fish and wildlife corridors for affected species; and water resources in areas affected…” (Section 7(c)(2)(a)). My interpretation: In other words, revenue from energy production is authorized to be used for impact mitigation.

Section 7(c)(3) states that “The Secretary [of the Interior] may enter into cooperative agreements (a flexible, federal government work agreement) with State and Tribal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other appropriate entities to carry out the activities described in [Section 7(c)(2)].”

So, what does this all mean? Well, as you can glean from my synopsis, HR 825 is a renewable energy development bill that makes my hackles prickle. Every bill aiming to develop public lands has the potential to harm precious public natural resources, either directly or indirectly. The federal government is mandated to follow the National Environmental Policy Act to identify impacts and evaluate alternatives for all federal actions, including developing energy sources or issuing permits for such activities, but impacts generally occur to some degree.

On the flip-side, the bill proactively authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to use allocated revenue to mitigate any impacts efficiently and effectively through cooperation with States, Tribes, and nonprofit organization. As far as public land energy development goes, this is a good deal. The TRCP blog post by Julia Peebles couches HR 825 as a “rare win-win scenario for fish and wildlife” and I trust her more politically savvy perspective. You can find that blog post at TRCP.org.

If you have not already, I encourage you to venture over to the TRCP and read their blogs to see what the organization is about. It’s a great resource for keeping tabs on Capitol Hill and our precious public resources.

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