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Montana to Spend $1 Million Per Year on Pheasant Farming Instead of Habitat

Montana to Spend $1 Million Per Year on Pheasant Farming Instead of Habitat

Pheasant being farmed for public lands

We should be a culture creating a sustainable future for wild birds, not perpetuating the shortcut of pen-raised farms for public lands

It’s May, time for gazing off into our hunting daydreams in anticipation of the oncoming fall. For many of us across the country, those dreams center on the sweeping landscapes and wild birds of Wyoming or Montana; maybe a trip is already planned to the same places we’ve read about for decades. A perfect dream might involve bumping into one of the legends out in the field; perhaps even making a clean shot over the points of Tom McGuane’s Setters or the Brittanys of Ben O. Williams.

For decades, those writers and their dogs along with thousands more inspired by their stories have roamed the vastness of the Big Sky State. They’ve hunted wild birds on high ridges and in deep coulees, and it all happened because of the hard work of past Montana conservation visionaries. Those conservation heroes fought to rebuild habitat, purchase access, pass legislation, and hold tight to the principles of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.  

But elections have consequences as they say. Montanans had one of those consequential elections in 2020, and, because of that, the long tradition of disciplined bipartisan focus on habitat and wild science is about to change. The first evidence of attacks arose over elk management, but now there’s a mandate for a short-sighted bird farming program, too. Pushed through by allies of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration despite fervent opposition from hunters, the new program mandates up to $1 million for bird rearing pens at the state prison which produce about 6,000 birds at about $150 each. 

Pen-raised birds and declining wild populations intersect in Montana

Defenders of wild bird hunting have rightfully been reminding what should have been done with that money. They are worried that iconic tales from famous authors about challenging hunts and hard-won old roosters will be replaced with passing comments about shooting domesticated creatures in controlled environments. There will be no McGuane book about this.

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This new policy is meant only to guarantee killing, but those of us who love wild bird hunting know that real connection does not emanate from the killing of a creature; certainly not one raised in a pen and released for us to shoot. We know our driving passion is pursuing something wild, difficult, and unpredictable. It’s about an experience that relies on nature, not one that cheats the rules to our advantage. And we all know that spending time and money to ensure habitat is the key to it all.

Top-notch biologists, like Dr. Ed Arnett, are unimpressed.

“Scientific evidence suggests that Greater and Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse can be successfully hatched and reared in captivity,” said Arnett, Chief Executive Officer of The Wildlife Society and an avid bird hunter, “but releases of pen-reared birds almost never survive. In Colorado, state wildlife agency researchers had some limited success in releasing pen-raised Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse into the wild, but, by and large, all other attempts to reintroduce pen-raised sage grouse to the wild have failed.” 

READ: Recovering America’s Wildlife Act: Breaking Down RAWA, and How to Support It

These Montana prison pheasants are nothing new for many people across the country for whom pen-raised bird shooting has become the only lasting substitute for hunting. And while there are many reasons why this is true, the most obvious is that we have allowed habitats and wild places to be erased. In the place of the fields, forests, and grasslands, there are now efficient commercial operations that can be confined to small spaces—we call them “hunting clubs” and “shooting preserves.” At these places, one can experience a clean business transaction, just like the checkout line at Costco but with more camouflage and tweed. All you need is a credit card and the willing suspension of disbelief. 

To be fair, there is a place for raising birds and the operations that utilize them. Dog training, hunt tests, and field trials come to mind, and, perhaps, there is a place for involving them with kids or new hunters, but involved in what and for how long? Are we trying to recruit hunters, or just promote transactional shooting?

The issues around pen-raised birds, diverting resources, and what’s in store for Montana

State agencies getting directly involved in raising game for harvest has little to do with long-term sustainability or vibrant populations of wild birds required for true hunting. An exhaustive summary of studies on the topic published in 2008 demonstrates that as many as 95 percent of released pheasants die within three months, and if birds do make it through a season, they rarely raise chicks to adulthood. 

So it’s pretty clear that this new Montana program is simply a put-and-take operation. If hunters care about sustainability, we should stop these sorts of expensive shortcuts and focus on the proven returns of habitat conservation. We should resume the old tradition of caring enough to vote for it, too. Failing to do so will only lead to fewer birds and fewer hunters, eventually leaving us with only those commercial options. 

Nothing illustrates this better than what is currently playing out in Wyoming, where massive swaths of sagebrush are being decimated before our eyes. But instead of addressing that obvious problem, the state is engaged in a diversionary sage grouse farming program patterned after a mostly-failed experiment in Colorado, as noted by Arnett.

He went on to note that, in the case of Greater Sage-Grouse, captive-rearing is diverting attention from real solutions and should never be considered a form of mitigation for habitat impacts. 

“This (captive-rearing) has become a distraction from what the weight of scientific evidence has told us for decades regarding sage grouse conservation,” Arnett said. “That is broad-scale habitat restoration and protection that provides for sustainable and harvestable populations range-wide. Diverting resources, and especially to entities allowed to privatize wildlife, is not helpful for sage grouse conservation at this critical juncture.”

Whether it’s pheasants or sage grouse, it’s far past time for those of us who know better to stand up and declare the obvious: farming birds is no substitute for ecosystem conservation, and we need to stop pretending otherwise. We should have drawn that line years ago, but let’s at least draw it here, now, before all we have left are bird farms, credit card transactions, and the stories of what we once loved. 

View Comments (20)
  • Ryan Bussee gonna do Ryan Bussee things. Instead of a clear, concise article driving home the fact that pen raised birds are an ineffective means of increasing bird numbers, he just couldn’t resist the urge to go off the rails into another oh so predictable anti-GOP rant, and telling us all how to vote. You’re right Ryan, vote Democrat so that we can turn MT into a utopia like WA, CA, and OR…it’s no wonder every sportsman I’ve met here talks shit about this guy.

    • So right! Nothing like a Democrat party hack telling us about how to manage hunting! The pen-raised released pheasants have been the norm in surrounding Democrat states for decades. Somehow he’s blaming it on Republicans? It has nothing to do with party affiliation.

      I’ll avoid reading anything by this… whatever from now on.

    • He accurately pointed out that the Republican administration is doing this. It’s a fact. He also pointed out that until recently, Republicans and Democrats agreed on this issue.

      If you’re mad at the author and not the people doing this, your identity may be a little too tied up in your political party. Politicians work for us, we don’t work for them, and hunters overwhelmingly don’t want this.

    • Well, we still don’t know how even the government could pay $150.00 per bird when you can buy them for $20.00. Is is a prison rehab thing? A million and 6000 birds are a drop in the bucket and should not change much. I won’t hunt farm raised birds. Most of the birds go to preserves. Preserves can be our friend. Most people think that is hunting. When I ask people if they hunt pheasants a lot of them say yes and then explain they went to such and such ranch and brought their kids. Good!
      Habitat is always the key. Montana does a pretty good job of access. We just need that rain and cover. We need to benefit landowners who allow hunting. Repeat that 10 times.
      Not sure why he’s wound up about sage grouse, a treasured relic, but horrible game bird.

  • Its….maddening to watch elected officials steal the work of so many conservationists/hunter/anglers and environmentalists with a pen.
    Just another symptom of too many ticks on the moose…

  • The lack of science based wildlife management from the the Gianforte Administration isn’t surprising. This is the same outfit trying to exterminate wolves again for political reasons.

  • Completely agree. Tragically this is what happens when farmers sell their land for profit rather than foregoing money for the generational benefit of others. The preservation of habitat can only be sustained by entities willing and able to purchase habitat (or in the case of government seize said property). Population growth doesn’t help.

  • This seems to be a ridiculous conclusion, Ring neck Pheasant was a stocked bird to begin with! Stock more and decrease predators along with increasing habitat and the glory days will return….. take away this jokers soapbox

  • Heaven help us if we actually had interesting work for inmates that might rehabilitate them and teach some life skills about responsibility, reliability and team work. I guess the Women’s Prison in Wyoming raising Tilapia and baitfish is a horrible waste as well.

    Some regard the output of these programs as value added products that benefit the producers and end users. But obviously something this elitist author never considered. I suppose you would have all state and federal fish hatcheries close as well.

  • I would much rather see our state take this money and spend it on habitat. We will now be shooting “jail birds” or more likely feeding raptors and predators.

  • With gas and diesel prices skyrocketing, who can afford to drive 500 miles to hunt the limited amount of pheasants in Montana. Most of the good areas are privately owned and few allow limited hunting. The MTFWP restock ever other species of game animals and protected animals in the state, but most areas are in limited or “draw areas”. When you talk about survival rates, look at the effects of bad weather and predators during nesting. I congratulate Gov Giaforte for looking outside the box to attract pheasant hunters to Montana.

  • The author’s point isn’t about red vs blue. The point is that in a completely red state, the corporate farming interests have greater influence than hunters and conservationists. For those of us who only have access to lousy pen raised pheasants and look to the West as the final frontier of wild American upland birds, this is profoundly saddening.

    • Thanks Bob. You pretty much nail it. I remain flummoxed as to how hunters seem to think it’s ok to dismiss our concerns in favor of taking part in some made up culture war. I think our wild bird culture is worth fighting for and make no apologies for same.

      • Very good article. This has been going on for a long time in Montana, and I’ve been against it from the start. I am constantly flummoxed that sportsmen who say they support habitat invariably support politicians who do everything they can to eliminate it. Elections have consequences to be sure, but so does ignorance.

      • Thank you for this article Ryan. It is disconcerting to hear hunters jump straight to the red v blue issue. To be a hunter/angler you have to be a conservationist, a public land advocate, and a steward of our wild spaces. We have already let too many these cherished places vanish or be eroded and restoring them is no easy or short task, and anyone that believes in the pursuit of wild birds in wild lands understands this.

  • Pretty simple to me. The coyotes and other predators are the main cause of declining population of pheasant. Northern California/ what a great example

  • Food and cover is what makes for good pheasant population. Most of the crops grown in Montana are not good forage crops, also very little cover. Until Montana farmers see pheasants as a cash crop the population will be marginal at best

  • Mr liberal magazine journalist.

    Why would this be any different than the fish hatcheries that keep our lakes and streams stocked with fish.

    P.S. IF this writing for hunting magazines doesn’t work out for you, you can always go to CNN.

  • For the past 50 years, biologists and other experts have preached that, by spending money on habitat, the wild bird population will magically increase. It has not and will not. In order to have enough birds for hunters to hunt, released birds are the only answer. Yes. habitat is crucial and we should make every effort to increase it. But, without released birds, the next generation of hunters will have nothing to hunt. South Dakota understands this. I applaud Montana on trying a new approach.

  • Ryan, you’re going through your “Jim Zumbo”phase and looks like a few haters are on a cancel campaign. The truth is, you actually get the big picture – it’s the habitat, stupid. Without a proper and healthy habitat, there’s no good wild bird hunting and pen raised ditch parrots will not fill the void.

    Down here in Wyoming, our G & F Dept. spends a whole lotta’ money on instant gratification hatchery pheasants but does little (actually nothing) for the natives and “naturalized” citizens (huns & chukar). Maybe that’s for the best…for all the good our G & F do, they also can sure fuck up things, also. Right now, on top of this drought, much of our public land has been severely overgrazed with the BLM turning a blind eye to the situation.

    Again, its the habit, stupid and in the long run, put n’ take stocked birds are just an easy-out momentary fix.

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