Habitat & Conservation  |  12/20/2022

The Great (Big Sky) Debate: Stock or Not?

Photo by Pat Howe

A century of wildlife research concludes “absolutely not”

In the wide world of upland birds and habitat conservation, no subject garners more volatility amongst hunters than that of stocking – good, bad, or otherwise.

The situation becomes even murkier when general license dollars – the fees you and I pay for outdoor pursuits – are allocated towards pen-raised birds instead of paying for fish and wildlife management, public land infrastructure, and habitat management.

Unfortunately, the state of Montana finds itself at a crossroads in this regard.

In the spring of 2021, a controversial pheasant stocking program was mandated by an act of the Montana Legislature, and later (summer 2022) approved by Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to begin stocking pheasants on select public lands throughout the state despite massive pushback. Currently, the program is costing sportsmen and sportswomen $1 million per year through 2026 with no plans for return-on-investment analytics. The funds to get the initiative off the ground are split between license fees (50 percent) and Pittman-Robertson allocations (50 percent), paying inmates at the state prison in Deer Lodge, Montana, to grow pen-raised ringnecks. Pheasants Forever submitted written comments and testimony in the debate to make our opposition known amongst state supporters and other organizations.

Does Pheasants Forever agree with the stocking? Absolutely not.

Do pen-raised birds survive in the wild? Absolutely not.

As a refresher, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, including our local chapter affiliates, are prohibited from spending any money or organizational resources on stocking efforts. Our mission is built around habitat projects that benefit wild pheasants and other iconic species. Why? For the better part of a century, all studies and research essentially point to the same conclusion: we can’t stock our way out of upland habitat problems, and habitat conservation work is the only way to effectively improve pheasant, quail, and other wildlife populations.  Further, our habitat mission also creates critical habitat for pollinators, improves soil health, protects water resources, and promotes a more resilient climate.

How futile is stocking? Review these stocking and surrogator studies we’ve compiled, and you’ll quickly come to the same conclusion we have. Stocking remains an ineffective, fruitless endeavor.

Bird stocking does support successful hunting programs (put & take) where wild birds don’t live, but many of these programs require participants to purchase an extra stamp to “pay their way” for the program itself. All the New England states are a great example. Fortunately, Big Sky country doesn’t feature a lack of wild ringnecks, nor should its wild populations be put at risk for disease transfer via stocking.

Despite the stocking initiative, Pheasants Forever is dedicated to working side-by-side with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to ensure meaningful habitat successes are contributing to wild birds and wild places throughout Big Sky. Some of our top partnership collaborations include:

  • Montana’s Biologist Program:  Direct support and partnership through four positions in MT (Conrad, Chinook, Scobey, and Billings) funded via the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program. Montana’s biologists improve more than over 200,000 acres of habitat per year through technical advice, Farm Bill practice delivery, and partnership programs.
  • Habitat Specialist Positions: MT FWP helps cost-share habitat specialists in Mission Valley, Denton, and Billings who perform habitat improvement work on publicly accessible lands including FWP-owned Wildlife Management Areas, USFWS-owned Waterfowl Production Areas, and PF-owned properties.
  • Partnership Initiatives: MT FWP and Pheasants Forever collaborate on strategic habitat initiatives including the Open Fields Program, PF’s Big Game Habitat Improvement Project, MT FWP’s Migratory Bird Program, and other initiatives around the state.

For those who have hunted Montana for upland birds or others who live vicariously through photos and stories of this western treasure, it’s no surprise this incredible state has an unofficial nickname as “The Last Best Place,” which also includes the wingshooting opportunities.

There’s no need to stock this wonderful state for multiple reasons, and rest assured, The Habitat Organization will always hold the line on this issue.