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Habitat major issue for upland game

Pheasant other upland-game seasons open Saturday. Lack political actiprobably took some toll habitat. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

Pheasant and other upland-game seasons open Saturday. Lack of political action probably took some toll on habitat. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:28AM

Government inaction might do more than the drought of 2012 to affect upland-game habitat and hunting.

Hunting for pheasant, quail, rabbits and partridge opens Saturday in Illinois. Once the favorite of hunters, upland game has been far surpassed by deer.

An estimated 12,301 hunters harvested 27,539 wild pheasants in the 2011-12 season. An estimated 12,668 hunters harvested 46,633 wild quail. Quail and pheasant hunters are now less than 5 percent of those who deer-hunt.

Rabbit hunting saw a small spike. An estimated 32,225 hunters (up 2 percent) harvested 155,552 rabbits (down 6.3 percent).

The good news is the drought shouldn’t be much of a negative.

‘‘This year, I think we are OK. The numbers are up, and so are at-large observations,’’ said Aaron Kuehl, Pheasants Forever’s conservation director for Illinois. ‘‘Early in the season, we didn’t have rains. And we had a great winter, so early nests were good. . . . That should mitigate for any of the bad in the drought.’’

‘‘I don’t think it will have that big an impact in the pheasant range,’’ emailed Mike Wefer, ag and grassland wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. ‘‘There could be local reductions in the quail range. We simply don’t have the manpower to do fall covey counts, like some other states, so we really won’t get any solid data until the season is over.’’

The mild winter balanced out drought negatives.

‘‘We saw a bounce in both nesting quail and pheasant numbers, thanks to last year’s mild winter,’’ Wefer emailed. ‘‘A severe winter will likely erase some of our gains. Another drought next year could hurt, especially quail.’’

The drought also led to rapid harvest. Statewide corn harvest is at 92 percent. Where hunters have land with habitat and permission to hunt, action should be good. Habitat is the issue.

‘‘The reason that quail and pheasant numbers are down is habitat loss,’’ Wefer emailed. ‘‘Fields are larger, cleaner and lack crop diversity [fallow, hay, weeds and small grains are in short supply]. The birds need to have space to live, nest and raise their chicks. Anything landowners and sportsmen can do to increase habitat or improve and maintain existing habitat will help stem the declines.’’

Programs for land use, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, are through the Farm Bill, which is stalled.

‘‘The lack of a Farm Bill is disconcerting, and we are not going to see it before the election,’’ Kuehl said.

He’s right. Problem is, farmers are deciding now on land use.

‘‘We are probably going to lose the opportunities for some of those fields that might have gone into [conservation programs],’’ Kuehl said.

In the long run, he is hopeful the Farm Bill will pass and those acres will go into conservation.

‘‘Stateside, we are hoping the sustainable funding bill [for the IDNR] goes through in the veto or lame-duck session,’’ Kuehl said. ‘‘We have two swings at this thing.’’

To pass in the veto session, it would require a two-thirds vote. In the lame-duck session, it would need only a simple majority.

And Kuehl would like to see the pheasant and quail habitat areas expanded from a couple of dozen.

‘‘Hopefully, we can get some legislators in there that will [see the value],’’ he said. ‘‘It would be nice to have one in every county that everybody could chase their dog on.’’

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