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IDNR’s Stan McTaggart optimistic about future of upland game hunting

Pheasant hunting doesn’t attract nearly as many big groups as it used but it still draws thousands afield. | Dale

Pheasant hunting doesn’t attract nearly as many big groups as it used to, but it still draws thousands afield. | Dale Bowman/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:33AM

Stan McTaggart sees long-term hope for hunting of
upland game to trend
upward again in Illinois.

And it’s not just because he was hired Sept. 1 as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ program manager for agriculture and grasslands.

Hunting for pheasants, rabbits, quail and partridge opens Saturday in Illinois. Just a couple of decades ago, opening day was the social event of the hunting year.

But loss of quality habitat to urban sprawl, changes in modern farming methods and a dramatic shift of hunter interest and participation to deer and turkey hunting, especially among bowhunters, has diminished upland hunting to a shot shell of its former self.

Last year, an estimated 17,427 hunters — a 41.7 percent increase over the previous hunting year — pursued pheasants. Compare that number with the nearly 10 times as many who bowhunt for deer and with the 15 times as many who will hunt for deer with firearms.

But McTaggart said he thinks upland hunting could rebound.

‘‘First, commodity prices drive land use, and prices have been pretty high for several years,’’ he emailed. ‘‘These things are cyclical, so a downturn in commodities could result in higher enrollments in CRP and other conservation programs.

‘‘Second, biofuels are gaining more attention nationally, and there are some alternative crops (alternative to corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel), like native grasses and woody residues, that could increase the amount of upland habitat across the Midwest.

‘‘Third, it depends on what is in the Farm Bill and if it passes. Some good conservation programs and measures have been proposed for this Farm Bill and supported by many states and conservation groups. Time will tell what is included in the final bill.’’

The first two reasons make sense to me. But considering the recent antics of a radical fringe in Congress, I am not as confident of a good Farm Bill for conservation being passed. Recent history for a new Farm Bill has been rocky.

On a more immediate level, there was a notable tweak on regulations for rabbit hunting: The season was extended statewide to run through Feb. 15.

‘‘The primary goal is to provide more hunting opportunity,’’ McTaggart emailed. ‘‘Some upland game hunters have lost access to hunting spots during deer season or have focused more on deer hunting in the last couple of decades. We are hopeful that the extension on rabbit-hunting season will open some doors to properties that are closed during deer season and provide additional opportunities to get people out in the woods.’’

That’s acknowledging the modern hunting world.

As to habitat, McTaggart thinks that will be with us forever.

‘‘Managing quality upland habitat is a never-ending quest,’’ he emailed. ‘‘If you have the ideal pheasant or quail property with good nesting, brood-rearing and winter cover, it will only stay that way with constant work and management. Frequent disturbance with prescribed fire and/or disking and constant vigilance to fight invasive species are needed to maintain quality habitat. The manager’s ‘to do’ list is never completed.

‘‘Another positive sign is that the department has filled numerous vacancies over the last year and hopefully will continue to add staff in order to better manage the resource.’’

On personal level, McTaggart said: ‘‘The last pheasant I shot was in a CREP planting in Sangamon County last season, and the last quail was two years ago on a state site.’’

That makes me feel better about the IDNR and upland game.

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