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The Least Dangerous Game

Ring-necked pheasant. Photograph by Ken Timothy, U.S. Forest Service

As I was driving the back roads of St. Lawrence County one autumn, two pheasants stood on a grassy shoulder. They watched me with curiosity as I slowed the car. I wondered if I could lure them in with corn chips, a treat that brings backyard chickens running. It hardly seems sporting to shoot them.

Pheasant season began October 1. Ring-necked pheasants are native to Asia, not to New York State, and they are not equipped for the snow that a North Country winter is about to bring. If the birds aren’t culled by hunting, they die from coyotes, cold or starvation. So what are they doing here at all?

Approximately 30,000 young, Department of Environmental Conservation–raised pheasants were recently uncrated on lands open to public hunting. “Pheasants have occupied the New York landscape for more than 100 years, and the state propagation program has been raising and releasing pheasants since 1909. Unlike some introduced species, pheasants have not been detrimental to our native flora or fauna,” DEC’s pheasant-management plan states.

The pheasants are grassland birds, so Westport in the pastoral Champlain Valley is the only place inside the otherwise densely forested Adirondack Park where DEC releases them. You are more likely to see them in hayfields on the outskirts.

My father and brother used to hunt ruffed grouse, another chickenlike bird but a native, woodsy, flightier target. They rarely brought home a grouse, but they enjoyed the time in the wild, as hunters do. My neighbor has two beautiful spaniels that he likes to work, and he drives them to the perimeter of the park to retrieve pheasants. He’s been generous, giving us a few roasters when the hunt is successful, so I’ve been a beneficiary of the state’s pheasant-stocking program.

Hunting teaches self-reliance, conservation, and understanding of natural processes. But a canned hunt delivers few of those satisfactions, and pheasant hunting does not seem dissimilar enough. Ecologically the program does no harm; since the birds don’t stand a chance of surviving they don’t displace native species. That brings criticism from the Humane Society of the United States, which calls DEC’s pheasant-stocking program cruel and wasteful. Most grocery-store chicken could also be called inhumane, but I don’t pay for that.

Governor David Patterson proposed to eliminate the pheasant stocking program during the budget austerity of 2008. Some hunters protested, and the program was spared partly on condition that it be financed by increased hunting license fees. DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino says that the $800,000 annual operating cost of the DEC’s Ithaca-based pheasant farm is covered by Conservation Fund revenues derived from hunting and fishing license sales as well as fines from violations of fish and game laws. DEC estimates that 25,000 people hunt pheasants in New York State.

I no longer buy a hunting license, but I renew my fishing license every year, and I’d rather my money not be used to farm semi-tame birds. If private individuals want to raise and shoot pheasants, that’s their business. As an ecology-minded sportsman (which I believe all hunters and anglers are) to me it’s a practical, not emotional, issue.

At a time when the region’s long-established natural balance is at a tipping point, I’d rather my license fees go to habitat stewardship as well as education programs and barriers intended to prevent invasive species from spreading into our region. I recognize the need to hatch and stock native fish such as Atlantic salmon and brook trout, to help them recover from historic overharvesting and competition from bass and other introduced species. A warming climate is further narrowing the inhabitable margin for the state’s cold-water salmon and trout, so natural-resource managers should increase efforts to keep tributaries shady and runoff minimal.

“If habitat is lost, all is lost,” wrote James Card in his essay “Greens with Guns,” in the August Earth Island Journal. “If a dying wetland will not hold ducks, it will not hold turtles, snakes or egrets. A plowed-up grassland will not hold prairie chickens, nor will it hold songbirds or badgers. A poisoned stream will not hold trout and it will not be fit for a hiker to drink from.”

As conservationists, sportsmen should use their political clout for the long game. An example: the federal Sport Fish Restoration program collects a pool of funds from recreational boat sales. It mandates that a minimum of 15 percent must be earmarked for construction of boat ramps and other facilities that provide access to the water. For whatever reason, only up to 15 percent can be used for education and outreach. The 1950 act did not foresee the role of recreational boaters in spreading zebra mussels, spiny water flea or Eurasian watermilfoil. It’s time for the ratio and priorities to be recalculated. If we don’t think and act for the long term, there may be no hunting or fishing.

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