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Wild pheasant recovery area to close

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    The German shorthaired pointer Homer comes back with a retrieve on the game lands near Tuscarora State Park. LISA PRICE/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    That's Tippy, a German wirehaired pointer, with a "blind" retrieve. LISA PRICE/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published April 19. 2019 11:43PM

The first time I traveled out-of-state to hunt birds, I drove from Pennsylvania to South Dakota stopping only for gas, pulled west by the vision of wild pheasants rising and cackling from cullies and shelterbelts. The trip happened a few months after my brother, home on leave from service with the Marines, told me that he’d met and fallen in love with a woman from South Dakota.

Warner, South Dakota – sometimes known as the Pheasant Capital of the World.

I’d barely let my brother finish his sentence.

“She sounds wonderful!” I’d enthused. He hadn’t even told me her name yet. Shameless, I’d been. As he continued to talk about how they met, and meeting her family on their farm that summer, a certain sentence stuck in my memory.

“There were so many pheasants walking around, you could barely drive on the dirt roads on their farm.”

Flash forward to fall and I’d arrived, bleary-eyed, and parked my camper next to a Quonset hut on my sister-in-law’s farm. (By the way, South Dakota property or not, her name is Amy and she is wonderful.) I thought I’d run my seasoned German shorthaired pointer Josey Wales first, and switch to the eight-month-old female, Lozen, in the afternoon.

As Josey stood quivering in anticipation, gazing out over the expansive cut-corn field, I walked around him, getting pictures from various angles. I was about to cut him loose when I realized I’d forgotten the water bottles. I grabbed a couple from my truck, and without thinking – because I hadn’t yet learned that hunting a bunch of pheasants was a lot like trying to sneak up on a herd of elk – I slammed the door.

And about a hundred yards away, at least a dozen pheasants rose, cackling triumphantly.

Hunter or not, there are some outdoor sounds you ought to hear, such as elk bugles and turkey gobbles. And to the “outdoor sounds you ought to hear” column, add, a bunch of wild pheasants, pounding the air with their wings as they rise, cackling.

That’s why I learned with sadness that efforts to establish the Hegins- Gratz Wild Pheasant Recovery Area (WPRA) in Schuylkill County will likely end, as discussed during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board of commissioners last week.

In 2011, 300 wild pheasants were trapped in North and South Dakota and transferred to the Hegins-Gratz WPRA. Through 2018, the pheasant population and habitat were monitored. Sadly, population surveys show that current wild pheasant numbers are very low, and much lower that the initial population (the tally of all the initial wild bird releases). PGC staff members have concluded that due to habitat conditions, a huntable wild pheasant population – the goal – is not achievable or sustainable.

Boundary changes are recommended for the state’s other WPRA’s, Central Susquehanna (Northumberland, Montour and Columbia counties) and Franklin County, reducing their size. The Hegins-Gratz will be reopened to stocking of game-farm pheasants.

Do I enjoy hunting game-farm raised and stocked pheasants? You bet, and you can also ask my dogs what they think about it. Don’t tell the folks at the PGC, but the pheasant permit is way underpriced.

Still, watching the incredible splash of color made by a dozen South Dakota pheasants streaking up out of a brown field, and hearing them cackle – it was magical. I don’t know why wild birds from the mid-west couldn’t make it here. I commend everyone involved who had enough optimism and hope to try the bold, grand experiment.

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