Busting cover: A few hints of hope for upland game in Illinois
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CHATSWORTH, Ill.–Six pheasants flushed out of the southeast corner of the Chatsworth Habitat Area Monday, startling me in the best way as I took photos.
I’ll take any good signs with upland game in Illinois. As pheasant, rabbit, quail and partridge seasons open Saturday in Illinois, there are reasons for hope.
Off the field, there’s excitement, too, as National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic comes to Illinois for the first time, Feb. 22-24 at the Schaumburg Convention Center.
First prospects for this season. The call count for pheasants statewide was up nine percent from 2017. The road-kill counts in July for rabbits were up 17 percent over 2017.
“There was good weather, other than snow in April and then it went straight to summer,” Wade Louis said. “Weather was pretty good for upland birds, especially pheasants not nesting in low areas. Quail nest later and the weather was really good for them.”
Louis, who heads the Habitat Team for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources out of Gibson City, is temporary head of the upland game programs until a replacement is found for Stan McTaggart, who became Wildlife Diversity Program manager.
“Quail are another story, our poor quail in this state,” Louis said.
In the 2016-17 season, Illinois hunters harvested a record-low 35,900 quail, down 24 percent. In the 2017-18, harvest only went up one percent.
“I don’t expect harvest to increase any, talking historically low numbers for fall harvest,” Louis said.
There was no change in the quail call count from 2017.
A really good note came at Sibley HA in Ford County, the top HA in the system. Every other year, the IDNR does call counts for pheasants at the HA sites.
“We set a record at Sibley,” Louis said. “They were so thick, even with a clicker, I couldn’t get all the calls. I had to set a base to do the count, 30 down at one stop. That is good habitat. I am looking forward to seeing how Sibley is doing.”
There is good news on habitat in Illinois, which has had 106,000 acres enrolled in the CP42, the Pollinator Habitat Planting program, in the last five years.
“That has had the biggest impact on Illinois on since the beginning of the [Conservation Reserve Program] back in 1980s,” said Jason Bleich, conservation specialist for Pheasants Forever.
Habitat will be central when Pheasant Fest comes here this winter.
“I am extremely excited,” Bleich said. “There is a great population to pull from, hoping to pull 30,000 [attendees] and 1,500 for the Saturday night banquet.”
On habitat, the Rights-of-Way as Habitat Working Group Meeting will be immediately prior to Pheasant Fest. Rights-of-way are significant habitat in Illinois with our lack of public land.
Chatsworth HA is the one new addition this year to Illinois’ free upland game permit program, coolest hunting program in the state.
“Hopefully, we will have some more [HAs added] next year,” Louis said.
Chatsworth HA, 160 acres of grasslands, is the first public hunting site in Livingston County. Louis knows it well. He helped the farmer years ago with CRP plantings and it was an easy call to purchase when it came available.
Around the state, there’s hope in the field, as Bleich noted, “Talking to farmers on combines and people checking their CRP, everybody is seeing good numbers of pheasants.”