Holiday birds

Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area pheasant stocking program increasing in popularity

Posted 12/5/19

Mike Power has always been thankful for the lessons he learned as he grew up in a hunting family. Now, with two young sons and a rambunctious lab puppy, it’s his turn to be a mentor.

His …

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Holiday birds

Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area pheasant stocking program increasing in popularity

Posted

Mike Power has always been thankful for the lessons he learned as he grew up in a hunting family. Now, with two young sons and a rambunctious lab puppy, it’s his turn to be a mentor.

His twins, Dylan and Aiden, are just beginning to hunt, having recently passed their hunter’s safety course. Lessons on a recent Saturday were centered around gun safety and ethically harvesting pheasants. But Power was forced to add endurance to his list as cold rain caught in a driving wind pelted the foursome on their long Nov. 23 hike at Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area.

The father’s end goal is to honor family tradition.

“Ultimately I want my kids to know how to be able to hunt meat for survival and hopefully be able to pass the knowledge to their families some day,” Power said.

It’s hard not to imagine a pheasant in every patch of tall grass and treed creek bottom surrounding the hundreds of acres of farmed land at Yellowtail, located east of Lovell. A short drive on double track trails and gravel roads makes upland game bird hunters drool and their dogs whine to get to work.

Thousands of game bird hunters buy Pheasant Habitat stamps in Wyoming, allowing them to hunt public access areas stocked with pheasants by the state’s two game bird farms.

The Power family came to Yellowtail knowing their chances were pretty good. Wyoming Game and Fish Department staff stock the Wildlife Habitat Management Area (WHMA) twice a week during the season. The farms (in Sheridan and Torrington) raise a combined 33,000 pheasants a year.

“We provide something that wouldn’t happen without our farms,” said Darrell Meineke, bird farm program supervisor. “Without put and take, hunters wouldn’t be able to locate pheasants. There’s not enough wild birds available in public access areas.”

 

A twice-weekly routine

Pheasant hunting is one of the most popular activities at Yellowtail. Purchased in the late 1960s to provide habitat to migrating waterfowl, it’s the only WHMA stocked with ring-necks in the Big Horn Basin. The management area receives as many as 5,000 birds per season.

Twice a week, for as long as the supply of birds last, Austin Quynn, a seasonal technician with the Sheridan bird farm, brings a load of about 350 pheasants to release at dozens of spots. He usually arrives early at Yellowtail, but he’s rarely the first to show. Several regulars, both hunters and wildlife watchers, come to see him release the birds around the approximately 19,200-acre habitat south of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.

Hunting hours don’t begin at Yellowtail until 11 a.m. on weekdays, giving Quynn peaceful releases — and the birds a chance to hide. Prior to the rule, hunters at times took shots at birds being released. The rules changed to give the birds a sporting chance and for safety concerns.

At 11 a.m. sharp, area hunters and those traveling to the WHMA — some from hundreds of miles away — hit the fields. During holidays and weekends, hunters sip coffee and look for an open spot long before daybreak, as hunters can hit the fields 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset.

Responsibility for the WHMA is shared between the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Forest Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“We all work together to manage the property, but the Game and Fish is the lead management agency,” said Eric Shorma, habitat and access biologist at Yellowtail for the past decade.

“My primary focus is waterfowl on the unit,” Shorma said. “But when you do good things for waterfowl, you do good things for a lot of different species.”

 

A home for wildlife

and farming

and farming

Beyond the multiple species of ducks and geese, the property is also thick with game birds including wild turkey, deer and has even recently been home to a cow moose. “She raised at least two calves down here,” Shorma said.

Fishing is also popular inside the WHMA. The Game and Fish stocks Pond 5, one of about a dozen ponds on the property. It has received several species in the past, including largemouth and smallmouth bass, bluegills and sunfish and rainbow trout, Shorma said. Cemetery Pond also has catchable fish, but only species that reach the pond during high water are available. “There’s a healthy population of carp in there,” he said.

Along with two local farmers, Shorma grows crops in the flats. Small grains, like barley, oats, milo and millet, are grown to encourage natural production of game birds and control broadleaf weeds. About 900 acres are in crop production. Shorma plants about 100 acres, but leaves the crops standing for wildlife to browse.

Farmers who lease the land must leave 10 percent standing for wildlife. Sugar beets aren’t allowed on the property and no-till farming is required.

 

Worth every penny

The Game and Fish recently considered closing its bird farms during cost-saving efforts. But the popularity of pheasant hunting and feedback from resident hunters saved the farms from the chopping block. Former Game and Fish sage grouse program supervisor and passionate hunter Tom Christiansen said the program may cost more than it brings in, but the service is worth every penny.

“Providing experiences for youth and seniors, both human and canine, is the best argument for this program in my opinion,” he said.

Scott Hape makes the long trip across the Big Horn Basin to Yellowtail several times a year. He’s been coming to hunt pheasant for 40 years.

“At least you know there are birds here,” he said. “It’s a great program and they do a good job.”

Hape is one of the regulars and enjoys watching the birds released, even if he and his German shorthair can’t find birds on their hunts.

“The nice part about it is you don’t have to ask permission to hunt. But it does draw a lot of people and it can get crowded on release days,” Hape said. “It’s getting inundated, but its the way of the future.”

The cost per pheasant raised by the department this year is about $23, said Scott Edberg, deputy chief of wildlife. That’s based on the total bird farm budget, which includes all payroll, equipment and capital construction.

“The game bird farm program continues to look at ways to be more efficient to reduce costs, while still producing high quality and numbers of pheasants,” Edberg said. 

The first pheasants were raised by the Game and Fish at the Sheridan Bird Farm in 1937. Most of the pheasants produced and introduced to habitats across Wyoming came from the facility. Several other varieties of pheasants, as well as chukars and turkeys, were raised in captivity and released in several parts of the state. Many areas of Wyoming thought to be vacant of game bird species and pheasants became popular with hunters.

About 6,000 pheasant habitat stamps were sold (for $15.50 each) last year — up about 10 percent over the past five years.

Pheasant season closes at sunset on Dec. 31.

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