Pheasant Farming, Goshen County operation produces quality birdsWritten by Heather Hamilton
Hawk Springs – “This bird farm was built in 1963 as an off-shoot of the original farm established in Big Horn in 1937,” says Bird Farm Superintendent Steve Schafer of the 10-acre Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) bird farm that produces between 15,000 and 17,000 birds annually for pheasant hunters in southeast Wyoming.
“The farm was originally built to augment wild populations, but, as things changed and wild populations declined, both farms turned into what they are now, which is a place to raise birds for recreational hunting,” explains Schafer, who manages both farms and resides at the Goshen County farm.
He adds the farm runs much like any livestock operation. “We raise the pheasants from eggs to an end product, and this time of year we are ‘shipping’ our final product. Shipping goes on from now until mid-December.”
Schafer also notes there is never a bird over one year of age on the farm, and that the WGFD doesn’t buy or sell any birds, preventing competition with the private sector. A brood flock is maintained, and the operation does everything from egg incubation to turning out finished birds.
“We select brood hens for characteristics we want, much like livestock producers select replacement females. We want a feminine bird with a good beak, good wings, straight legs and other traits that will help her offspring survive off the farm. We select roosters based on the specifics traits we want to see continued in our genetics, too,” notes Schafer.
He adds that roosters are switched between the Sheridan and Goshen County locations to keep genetic diversity present in the flocks. “We’re also trying to trap some wild roosters in South Dakota. We have yet to accomplish that, but it’s in the works and would really jazz up our genetics,” states Schafer.
Pheasants lay based strictly on the length of days. “We almost always get our first eggs within a week of the first day of spring,” notes Schafer.
The farm’s 1,200 brood hens lay about 1,000 eggs each day during peak laying season, and each hen averages 45 eggs per season. “They don’t quite lay one egg per day. It’s very close, though,” notes Schafer.
The eggs are gathered and incubated in sets of 6,500 for 26 days. “We give them one extra day since we’re using a machine,” explains Schafer.
He adds the machine hatches just over 80 percent of eggs, and the goal is to get 5,000 chicks in each of the four sets of hatchlings.
“We try to time it so one hatch occurs each week for four weeks, and then we have our 20,000 chicks,” says Schafer.
He notes that brood hens are pretty used up after a laying season, despite being fed a 27 percent protein diet. “We try to turn those hens out into good situations. We have reports from a location in Platte County, where we’ve turned hens out for three years, showing production from them. Those hens do us a lot of good when they raise a brood on their own after we’ve met our needs with them,” comments Schafer.
The baby chicks are also fed the same 27 percent protein diet during their early days spent inside. Then they are turned out into a series of pens that cover 10 acres, where they grow up.
“We’re probably the only operation in the state of Wyoming that likes kosha weed,” comments Schafer of the weeds used for habitat in the pens. “Those weeds will grow seven or eight feet tall, and are absolutely fantastic for pheasants. They eat the leaves while the plants are succulent, and once it’s dried out they eat the seeds. It also provides great cover during hail and heavy downpours.”
The birds are fitted with a blinder to make them easier to handle. “We want them to be as close to a wild bird as possible, but we still have to be able to handle them. The key is to find that balance. We can’t have them flying into things and killing so many every time we do something in the pens. The blinders help with that,” explains Schafer.
He says the birds that are put in good habitat situations, and that survive the hunting season, do as well as wild birds. “We’ve even had birds escape with the blinders on their faces around this time of year and they make it through the winter and are seen the following spring dragging a brood of chicks across a neighbors’ yard. That has occurred on three different occasions,” notes Schafer.
He explains that Wyoming is on the very edge of pheasant habitat, and that even so called “good habitat” in Wyoming is marginal in the big picture.
“The areas of good habitat in our state probably wouldn’t even show up on a habitat map in a true pheasant state,” says Schafer.
The reason for this is primarily weather and habitat related. “It’s just like anything with agriculture – water is a limiting factor. If we have a good water year it’s typically followed by a decent pheasant year,” notes Schafer.
Of habitat, Schafer says basic economics result in less desirable habitat for birds.
“Pheasants liked the guys who have been out of business for 30 years because they were inefficient in their practices. They had weeds in their fields and puddles of water from irrigating, and areas on the edges or corners of their fields with great habitat. Today they can screw down a combine to where it hardly loses a kernel, and hay equipment can run at 12 to 15 miles per hour, and young birds can’t get out of the way.
“Pivot irrigation is another thing that’s affecting the decline of pheasants in Wyoming. With flood irrigation there was always a puddle somewhere at the end of the field, and standing water in the ditches at some point. With pivot irrigation, if it’s hot and the bird isn’t there within about 15 minutes of the pivot going by, he won’t get a drink.
“That’s just part of the times and the way it is, which makes it hard to be a bird in this state,” explains Schafer.
Of predators, Schafer lists feral house cats and great horned owls at the top of the list. “Coyotes get blamed for a lot of things, but they’re not a major bird predator. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll catch and eat what they can, but the cats and owls are harder on pheasants.”
He adds that bull snakes, raccoons and skunks are known as nest predators. “It’s a predator’s job to catch something and eat it. When you have a little piece of habitat that keeps getting smaller, it’s like fishing in a barrel for the predators.”
“It’s just tough being a pheasant in Wyoming due to the habitat situation,” comments Schafer.
“This year we hope to turn out about 17,000 birds from this farm and between 15,000 and 16,000 from the Sheridan farm,” explains Schafer. “We scatter them all over, and you will see license plates from pretty much anywhere who are pheasant hunters, so evidently it’s still very popular with people.”
“It’s just like any livestock operation. We just keep moving forward and producing birds to turn out this time of year,” says Schafer.
GPS units assist hunter, ranch managementWritten by Christy Martinez
“Each photo taken with the 550T is automatically geotagged with the location of where it was taken, allowing you to navigate back to that site,” says GPS Magazine of the Garmin Oregon 550T.
What the magazine doesn’t say is that it also allows landowners to exactly pinpoint and record hunters’ locations – whether they be on public lands or restricted deeded acres. It also helps landowners ensure their projects – such as fencing or water developments – are placed in the right locations.
The Garmin Oregon 550T GPS device features a 3.2-megapixel camera with the ability to imprint the date, time, latitude and longitude of the photo’s subject.
“I took the GPS out with me to hunt prairie dogs, and took a photo of a new solar well and tank to try it out,” says Everet Bainter of Casper, who owns the Oregon 550T model. “When I go to look at the photos, it can show a layer that clearly says the well is on BLM land, and the next button shows the date, time, latitude and longitude where I took the picture.”
Of using the device to combat trespassing, Bainter says, “You go to court with that, and I think you’ve probably got them.”
Bainter adds the camera’s quality is adequate. “I think you could see a license tag, and certainly the vehicle and the people,” he says.
Natrona county rancher Doug Cooper says he uses his GPS when discussing property boundaries with hunters, as well as for his own personal information. His model displays a map onscreen, including land ownership.
“Ranches like ours, and like most in central Wyoming, have a mixture of state, federal and private land, each with different rules,” says Cooper. “Sometimes the rules are little things. For example, if we want to change a road or fix it, on federal land we can’t touch it, while on state land we can do up to $2,000 in improvements.”
He says the new generation GPS he has this year does make managing hunters much easier. “Before, I’d have to take the GPS out and plot onto a map where I was. With this one, I can just look at it and know where I am. I can avoid having the discussions about whether or not the hunters are in the right place – it’s easy to hold it up and show them.”
Cooper says he and his family have used GPS for some time, but with older models he used to have acetate overlay on a BLM map, from which he could count the latitude and longitude. “You could do it, but it took more time,” he notes.
“I was quite pleased with how easy it is,” says Cooper of his new model. “The chip you buy along with it is easy to install – it’s like putting a memory stick in your camera – and immediately it comes up and works.”
He also adds that the maps supplied with the chip have problems endemic to all maps. “Somehow, we have a road that forks in a Y on our place, and both forks have the same name. We also found that someone named a road that runs through two private ranches and is an entirely private road, and now people think it’s a public road because it has a name,” he says.
However, he says in day-to-day management, the GPS is easy to carry and use. “If we’re looking at changing a fence, it’s easy to look at it and see that we can go down a certain ridge, because it’s all on deeded land,” he explains. “We can also use it to find where we’d want to drill a water well.”
In the past, the ranch has relied on old surveys. “We’ve got a township with no corners, and supposedly there are buffalo skulls marking the section corners, but I’ve never seen any buffalo skulls out here. We’re in a tough situation, where we almost drilled a water well on federal land. We thought we knew where we were, and turned out not to be.”
Cooper says there are many applications. “We can’t legally spray weeds on federal lands, so it gives us a handy way of knowing what we can and can’t do. Even feeding livestock – technically we can’t feed hay on federal land in the winter. Using the GPS is a good way to avoid those kinds of problems.”
Of its accuracy, Cooper says, “You can’t use it to be too precise. I wouldn’t think it’s accurate less than 50 or 60 feet. There’s a little wiggle room, but I’ve compared it to locations where I know the corners are, and it’s pretty close. It’s an acceptable accuracy.”
Of the sportsmen who use the units to navigate the country, Cooper says some of those he’s talked to have been confused as to their location and its correlation to the map, which is color-coded for federal, state and private land, but they weren’t causing any trouble. “The GPS can shut down all arguments, and it’s a win for both sides,” he notes.
New bighorn hunting opportunity addedWritten by Christy Hemken
The license is for a herd of 110 to 120 bighorns southeast of Newcastle in Weston County. “The sheep have pioneered from a South Dakota transplant, and they’re now spending more time in Wyoming,” says Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Bighorn Sheep Coordinator Kevin Hurley.
While the WGFD will work to get a better handle on how many, how often and during what time of the year the sheep come into the state, the department did issue a single hunting license for a Wyoming resident in the new Hunt Area 20.
“We’re pretty excited,” says Hurley, noting that a young woman from Rock Springs drew the license and has been hunting the area with her father. The WGFD has set up a long, liberal season of four months, since the agency’s unsure of where and how often the herd crosses the state boundary.
In other hunt areas, in early October the state was halfway through sheep hunting season. “Last year, statewide, hunters took 194 rams and all indications are this year will be equal to or better than last year as far as harvest, age, size and quality. Things in the sheep hunting business are looking up,” says Hurley.
Of the 194 sheep harvested last year, 164, or 84 percent, came from Hunt Areas 1 through 5 above Cody. “The epicenter for sheep hunting is northwestern Wyoming, and we’re pretty excited about the hunting opportunities,” notes Hurley. “Where hunters have helped pay for transplants, we want to provide opportunity back to them and we’re trying to do that where we can.”
A recent change in license procedure has allowed the harvest of rams in smaller herds that would otherwise have died of old age.
“About three years ago we got permission from the State Attorney General that, as long as we met a three resident to one non-resident ratio statewide every year, we didn’t have to have those four licenses in one hunt area as a minimum,” says Hurley.
It used to be that the small herds of bighorns either weren’t hunted or that at least four licenses had to be issued to cover the three-to-one ratio. “If we had a small population that could withstand the harvest of one or two rams – we had no way to get them,” he notes.
For the last two years the agency has employed their new ability in several hunt areas, providing limited opportunity and restricted harvest. “Hunters have been able to take nice rams that would have otherwise died of old age,” says Hurley. “We’re excited about that, and it’s made some opportunity that wasn’t there before.”
Landowner incentives still exclude transferrable licensesWritten by Christy Martinez
After a series of joint meetings between the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Wyoming Board of Agriculture (BOA), a subcommittee has formed to collaborate on ideas to provide more incentives for landowners to open their deeded acres to public hunting.
“Most of the incentives will, more than likely, be based on habitat improvements,” says Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Director Steve Ferrell. “Most of the programs with which I’ve been familiar in my career have focused on on-the-ground improvements – multiple use water developments and habitat treatments from prescribed burns to removing juniper trees to fertilizing irrigated pasture.”
Ferrell says he anticipates it’s those types of incentives that will be discussed for use in Wyoming. At the most recent joint meeting between the groups on Sept. 23, a joint statement was passed that specifically excludes transferrable licenses from being a part of those incentives.
“In a time when we are seeing a decrease of hunters nationwide, access to land for hunting plays a crucial role in maintaining our hunting tradition and in maintaining funding for wildlife management and conservation funded by sportsmen,” the statement reads. “During the 1990s, the WGFD started the Private Lands/Public Wildlife (PLPW) Access Program to maintain and enhance public access onto private and landlocked public lands. Specific to access for hunting, the PLPW program includes hunter management and walk-in areas and the Hunter/Landowner Assistance Program. Landowner support for these programs has been outstanding, and these programs currently provide hunting access to over 1.6 million acres of private land in Wyoming. The BOA and Commission are interested in evaluating other landowner incentives (excluding transferrable licenses) to increase success of these programs even more.”
Wyoming has started down the path of transferrable landowner licenses at least three times, the most recent being 10 years ago, about the time that PLPW was initiated, says past-WGFD Director Terry Cleveland.
“There was an effort by the Commission to recognize the contributions of private landowners in terms of providing access to the public for the purposes of hunting and fishing,” says Cleveland. “The PLPW program was meant to recognize those long-standing contributions, and in some small way financially to pay them to continue that privilege they grant to hunters. One of those options the Commission explored was the ability for the landowner to transfer the landowner licenses they received.”
Once the idea was hatched, a series of meetings were held around the state, and a public adamantly opposed to the idea voiced their opinions.
“Several states have a process to allow landowners to get licenses in exchange for allowing the public to hunt the same species on the land,” says Cleveland. “In most states, the landowner gets the privilege of hunting antlered or male game only, while the public has the opportunity for more of the female segment of the harvest. The Commission’s proposal changed that, to make it more agreeable to the public, in that the public would have an equal or even greater opportunity to harvest male opportunities.
“It was a strong attempt by the Commission to recognize the importance of private lands to wildlife, and recognize that the public needs the opportunity to hunt on private lands.”
Cleveland says his sense is that it became a conflict of the classes, or the non-landed public versus the “gentry” landowners.
“Over the years, there’s been resentment on both sides. From the landowners’ perspective, there’s been resentment against sportsmen with poor sportsmanship and damage to private land, and against not being adequately compensated for their private property. From the sportsmen’s perspective, there’s an ill feeling because, growing up, they could hunt anyplace – nobody even asked permission – and that’s changed. It’s a deep-rooted and difficult issue.”
“Wyoming’s been down that path at least three times, and I’ve personally been down that road once in Arizona. From what I understand, the same thing happened here – the sportsmen objected to it strenuously,” says Ferrell.
Ferrell says the WGFD practices the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, along with the rest of the country, which says everyone gets equal access to wildlife.
“The reason sportsmen have objected to transferring landowner licenses is that they typically sell at fair market value, as opposed to the face value of the license,” explains Ferrell. “It’s not uncommon for a bull elk tag to be sold for thousands of dollars, and the average sportsman says that allows the rich guy to hunt every year, rather than going through the draw.”
“There are some who say that transferring licenses privatizes wildlife, and gives some an opportunity to sell wildlife for personal gain,” says Ferrell. “But the primary objection has been the issue of allowing folks to annually purchase a hunting opportunity at a much higher price than most people can afford. They can cut to the head of the line, and have an assured opportunity for a high price, as opposed to going through the draw.”
So, today, Ferrell says the incentives offered will be projects to benefit both wildlife and livestock. “The department would invest our resources in those things, because as a state agency we have to make sure there’s a benefit to the general public,” he notes.
Game and Fish access programs see rapid expansionWritten by Jennifer Womack
Game and Fish Access Coordinator Matt Buhler says enrollment in one of his agency’s three programs is a chance to build a partnership in ensuring a more responsible presence by hunters and anglers. Buhler, who has an office in Casper, oversees the Walk-In Hunting, Walk-In Fishing and the Hunter Management Program for Game and Fish.
In 1999, he says, 120,000 private acres were enrolled as walk-in areas. By 2009, he says that number had grown to 670,587 acres. A similar story exists in the Hunter Management Program, which has seen a growth from 123,522 acres in 1999 to 917,438 in 2009.
“It’s based on the number of acres enrolled,” says Buhler of payments received by landowners. Incentives are offered for longer-term contracts and for larger blocks of land. Enrollment, he says, is limited to properties 80 acres or larger in size. Agreements are written to meet the needs of individual landowners and their property. For example, an agreement can be written for angling access or for hunting specific species, such as waterfowl, elk or deer.
Fishing walk-in areas are contracted on an annual basis, while the hunting walk-in program is built around hunting seasons. Access to a walk-in area only requires a valid license. Hunter Management Areas, on the other hand, can either be unlimited or limited and hunters must obtain a permission slip prior to hunting.
“We provide management of hunters and anglers,” says Buhler of all three programs. “Landowners aren’t inundated with a ton of access requests. We provide additional law enforcement on these properties and that’s huge to many landowners.” Buhler says they’ve seen a more general respect for private properties as hunters and anglers realize access to the area is a privilege that can be lost.
“You have to get a permission slip from the Wyoming Game and Fish prior to going into Hunter Management Areas,” says Buhler. “Some are limited on a first come, first serve basis or through a random draw while others are unlimited,” says Buhler. That type of access, he says, is administered via an online system included in the Game and Fish’s website. Beginning in July, sportsmen and women can access the website to request permission or enter into a drawing held to enter a given area.
“There’s a lot of variation,” says Buhler of the agreements inked within the program. “We take a lot of factors into consideration to determine how many permission slips and whether it should be an unlimited or limited draw for access.”
While the above numbers reflect private land, the three programs can also be applied to state land. The Duncan Ranch near Glenrock, owned by the state and managed by the Office of State Lands and Investments, is one example of state property enrolled in the program. Buhler says the program provides landowners an ally in enforcing violations such as off-road traffic and litter. “If the lands are enrolled in the program, we’re able to administer the laws and regulations associated with our program.”
Landowners interested in participating in the programs can contact local Game and Fish personnel or the regional access coordinators in their given area. Typically, says Buhler, the local game warden, the access coordinator and a biologist will meet with the landowner to determine which species could be hunted in the area and the level of access to be extended.