By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
Farm families live close to the land, and generally have a pretty good insight into long-term species decline and habitat loss in their own region. Farming, too, can sometimes be an extremely delicate dance between conservation and financial opportunity.
So it made complete sense for the Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) to turn to local farm families and 4-H clubs when it became apparent pheasant populations were in severe decline all over southern Alberta. The ACA created the “4H-ACA Raise and Release Program” as a test model three years ago, and hasn’t looked back since.
“We were looking for a way to involve youth with wildlife and their habitats,” explains Blair Seward, ACA project leader for the program. “We started doing the pheasant release program as part of that. There is a pretty big interest in southern Alberta in pheasants. They used to be pretty prevalent on the landscape and their numbers have decreased with the habitats that have been taken away. So we were kind of racking our brains to see how we could get people back interested in it. And we thought engaging youth was a great way to do that.”
The ACA provides about 10,000 pheasant chicks for participating 4-H clubs a year and all the basic equipment to get them started. The goal of the program is to create a stable, long-term breeding population of the birds while at the same time teaching 4-H members about the importance of species conservation. The chicks, (at about a 6-1 ratio females to males), are fed up to adult weight by the clubs, who also find suitable habitats, in consultation with ACA biologists, to eventually release them into the wild. However, there are no guarantees the majority of released birds will survive to successfully breed.
“Survivorship has been proven to be pretty low,” acknowledges Seward. “But talking with the participants, they have actually seen their (released) birds around quite a bit. And we have started radio collaring birds as well to get a better picture of that… Pheasants are good birds to release because they work well with agriculture. They don’t necessarily need a fully native landscape to survive like some other birds do.”
Seward says, overall, pheasant numbers are increasing thanks to the program, and what’s equally important is the lessons the program teaches.
“I think the only way we are going to have a sustainable wildlife population and habitat is to involve the younger generations,” he says. “Some day these (4-H) kids are going to be taking over their moms’ and dads’ farms and ranches; so we try to give each of them a presentation on habitat in this program. When they go to release their birds we talk about the habitat needs of the pheasants, and why the area they have selected may or may not work. The kids realize that sometimes they have to travel quite a ways from home to release their birds. So it gets them thinking habitat, and what’s on the landscape, to support these birds.”
Seventeen year-old Victoria Wehlage of the Milk River 4-H Club, who is in her third year of raising pheasants with program, agrees wholeheartedly with Seward. And admits she has begun thinking about her surrounding landscape differently since starting with the program.
“I would just like to say the partnership with ACA has been amazing because they give us the chicks, and for new members the equipment they need to start. They also give us their knowledge and big support to help teach us how to do this.”
She has also begun to realize how wild the pheasants remain at heart even while in captivity. Their survival instincts are all intact, she says, but she and her fellow club members try to simulate a wild environment for the birds from an early age. These are not pets, she insists.
“I’ve learned a lot about pheasants and their habitats, and how they kind of act and react to certain types of things,” confirms Wehlage. “I have noticed when they are threatened they either run really fast or they talk to each other and warn each other that there is danger near, and then they fly all over the place and scatter.”
“We have caragana trees and tall grass in our large pen so they get used to hiding in the tall grass and in the trees. So you are giving them almost like a training course for them to get ready to go out in the wild. That helps them practice using those instincts. And we also have dogs in the yard (outside the pen) and they can also practice hiding from them. Hopefully that helps them survive better when we release them.”
Wehlage hopes her club’s efforts will be rewarded with a strong, viable, local pheasant population for years to come.
“I think (the Raise and Release Program) is really important because it helps put these animals back into the wild and helps get their population back up. I am hopeful that they still have the instincts they were born with, and that they will be able to continue to reproduce,” she says.
Hays 4-H Club leader Vanessa van der Wielen says she knows her club’s local efforts have already been successful as they are now finding new nesting populations in their region.
“We are proving these wild birds aren’t just going out there and getting eaten or shot, and they are actually multiplying,” says van der Wielen.
For her, the turnaround in just a few short years since the 4H-ACA Raise and Release Program started in her area has been wonderful to see.
“The biggest thing for us was the pheasant population in this area was dropping tremendously after the Brooks hatchery shut down,” she explains. “There were fewer and fewer pheasants, and the people in this area were noticing the population was decreasing. We had some tough winters, and the ones here were dying over the winter and they weren’t being repopulated… The program has grown tremendously; beyond what I thought it would have been two or three years ago. I am happy our work has made some difference, both for 4-H and the Alberta Conservation Association.”
van der Wielen, like Seward, hopes the lessons the 4-H kids have been learning while taking part in the Raise and Release Program continue to be with them for life.
“I would say, for the kids, they have seen a side of conservation they didn’t know exists,” she affirms. “They get to work one on one with biologists, and I don’t think they knew this is what some biologists do. So there are some career opportunities to look at later on, especially for someone who wants to get off the farm and still work on that conservation issue. And we have seen families start to change some of their farming practices. So that corner might, say, get populated with caraganas instead of being cut right down the ground or the gravel.”
Like the pheasants they release into the wild, these kids are being provided the tools and supports they need to get a tremendous start on thinking about the bigger picture of conservation in Alberta, and slowly preparing themselves for the day they will come into their own as landowners and farmers in their own right. Whether these valuable stewardship lessons ultimately survive and bear fruit into adulthood cannot be known, but the 4H-ACA Raise and Release Program is giving participating members the opportunity to learn them first hand.