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Group aims for pheasant habitat

March 10, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Brian Brake is a pheasant hunter. He has a gun, shells and Abigail, his trained English setter. What he doesn't have is pheasants.

"There used to be 150 to 200 pheasants per square mile in Franklin County 20 years ago," said Brake, 31, of Mercersburg, Pa. "Today there are about four birds per acre and all of them are stocked. There aren't any wild birds left here."

Brake is habitat chairman for the 82-member Franklin County chapter of Pheasants Forever. The organization, which promotes programs to develop wildlife habitat, has 77,000 members, most of them hunters, nationwide, he said.

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Brake's organization sees a $750,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation as a way to return wild pheasants to Pennsylvania. The local chapter is in a partnership, which includes California University of Pennsylvania and federal and state wildlife agencies, that will create model farmland habitat projects in 10 Pennsylvania counties, including Franklin. Each county will get $75,000 of the grant money.

Brake said that in the early 1970s, Pennsylvania hunters killed more than 1 million wild pheasants a year. In 1996 the number was down to about 260,000, and they were mostly pen-raised birds that had been stocked by the state, he said.

According to a Pennsylvania Game Commission report, ring-necked pheasant populations have dramatically declined in the last 20 years. At first the decline was thought to be a natural cycle, but by 1990 pheasants had virtually disappeared from most Eastern farm states, including Pennsylvania, the report said. Intensified farming practices were blamed for destroying nests and winter cover.

Brake said pheasants build nests in fields in May, at about the same time that farmers begin to harvest the first cutting of hay. The machinery destroys nests and kills the hens, he said.

Pennsylvania stocks about 250,000 male pheasants every year, but stocking does little to bring the birds back, Brake said.

"Stocking is not the answer," Brake said. "It's habitat. Pen-raised pheasants can't reproduce in the wild. They don't have the genetics to survive enough to get viable populations..

"The only way is to trap wild birds in states where they thrive and release them here," he said.

Brake, a math teacher and wrestling coach at South Hagerstown High School in Hagerstown, said federally funded projects such as the Conservation Reserve Program help to increase safe habitat for pheasants, quail and other game and nongame wildlife threatened by agriculture.

Farmers who volunteer for the program are paid to leave low-production, environmentally sensitive or highly erodible land idle. Warm-season grasses are planted on the idle land to provide cover during the brooding season.

"It's better to grow grass which protects the soil than corn which increases erosion," he said. Streams are fenced to keep livestock away and wetlands are restored.

The program was designed to protect water quality, but saving habitat has become an important byproduct, he said. Brake said more than 1,000 acres in Franklin County have been set aside under the program.

He said the local share of the foundation grant will be spent, among other things, to develop a 10-acre demonstration tract in Mercersburg so county landowners can learn to apply the techniques to their own land.

"This is a public education program," he said.

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