LANSING - A new state effort is targeting the shrinking amount of habitat land for grassland birds in the Lower Peninsula by focusing on pheasant restoration.
The effort, formally known as the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative, is designed to rebuild wild pheasant populations by devoting large areas of public and private land to the birds' recovery.
Pheasant recovery areas are in Clinton, Sanilac, Lenawee, Huron, Tuscola, Hillsdale, Monroe, Gratiot and Saginaw counties.
A ringtailed pheasant flies. (Journal photo illustration by Dan Weingarten)
The landscape of southern Michigan has changed significantly in 50 years due to more intensive agriculture practices, urban sprawl and more forest land, which has directly affected pheasant habitats, said Mike Parker, regional wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever, an advocacy group involved with the restoration initiative.
"The focus of the initiative is to bring back quality pheasant habitat. The most important thing is large blocks of undisturbed nesting cover."
"The secondary concern is winter cover, which can be established by planting blocks of switch grass or restoring wetland, and the third priority is winter food," he said.
The program focuses on three areas where landowners are encouraged to work together to provide up to 2,000 acres of land per cooperative for habitat restoration.
The first pheasant recovery area is in Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola counties. The second is in Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties, and the third is in Gratiot, Saginaw and Clinton counties.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, the goal is to establish 10 such cooperative areas by 2015, resulting in 15,000 to 20,000 acres of quality habitat.
Parker said only one cooperative area has been established so far in Gratiot County, but others are in the works.
Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy in Bath, said that while current agricultural practices are a huge threat to the pheasant population, focusing on private land owners may be more promising.
"You have a better chance to reach people who are not solely dependent on their land as an income source, and that's non-farmers," he said.
"If it's a program directed at farmers, it's going to be minimal in its success. Farmers won't delay hay mowing because they make their living off of cutting the hay in June. They're just not going change their agricultural practices because they're trying to optimize profit," he said.
Mowing in the early summer threatens pheasants because it often kills the hens and destroys the nests in crops that pheasants prefer, such as alfalfa, he said.
He added that another reason why the program may succeed is because it's different from other pheasant population initiatives that the state has tried before.
Previous efforts such as the Put-and-Take program and the Sichuan project were costly mistakes that simply did not work.
Those programs released thousand of game farm-raised birds into the wild with hopes that they would cross-breed with the existing ring neck population, but they didn't succeed.
Paul Morrow, former habitat chair of the Ingham County chapter of Pheasants Forever, said the Sichuan project and similar stocking programs were dismal failures because pen-raised birds cannot survive in the wild.
That's why there's been a shift toward propagating natural, existing populations and growing them from a core area, he said.
"If you take a bunch of pheasants and let them go in various places and they don't have the right habitat to survive and thrive, then obviously your results are going to be less than successful. It's putting the cart before the horse," he said.
Parker said that pheasants are an indicator species for the quality of grassland habitat.
"If pheasants are declining, there's probably a lot of other grassland wildlife that are declining, and that is the case. Many migratory grassland songbird populations are really declining, so anything that we do for pheasants will also be beneficial to those other birds," he said.
Fijalkowski agrees, but said that the focus on habitats for grassland birds shouldn't end with pheasants.
He said that while pheasant populations are dangerously low, advocacy groups such as Pheasants Forever and their hunting constituency bring ample attention to the issue.
"The meadowlark doesn't have an advocate and the Henslow's sparrow and the grasshopper sparrow, which are now rare birds, don't have advocates, and they'll disappear first," he said.
He said that those species need some of the attention received by the pheasant, which isn't even native to Michigan.