You may need at least a little gray in your hair to remember it, but there was a time when white-tailed deer were not the preferred quarry for Michigan hunters. Until the mid-1960s, more hunters pursued pheasants than deer. Since then, however, the trends for these sports have taken opposite directions.

Native to China and introduced into Michigan in 1895, ring-necked pheasants soon became one of the favorite game animals here. The first pheasant season was held in 1925 and, by the 1940s, 1 million birds were being harvested each year. Between 1940 and 1964, there was only one year (1947) when Michigan hunters failed to bring home at least a half-million birds.

In those days, Oct. 20—opening day of pheasant season—was a much bigger event than the opening of deer season. Schools and some factories in southern Michigan closed to allow sportsmen the opportunity to chase the colorful game birds. Now? According to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) survey data, hunters killed about 38,000 wild pheasants in 2010.

What happened was an almost perfect storm that led to declining pheasant populations. The landscape changed from small family farms with small fields, pastures, brushy wetlands and fence rows to large farms planted almost road-to-road with row crops. Modern fertilizers reduced the need to let fields lie fallow, and uncultivated grasslands succeeded into brush and forest lands, depriving the birds of the nesting, escape and winter cover they need. Urbanization removed even more habitat, especially from what were some of the most productive pheasant-hunting counties, including Wayne and Oakland.

“We don’t know everything there is to know about pheasants,” says DNR upland game bird program leader, Al Stewart, “but one thing we do know is they do not do well on asphalt.”

Meanwhile, as deer populations exploded in southern Michigan, hunters simply shifted gears, and pheasants became almost an afterthought.

None of this escaped the attention of DNR wildlife officials, who tried to stop the downward spiral in the 1980s by introducing a different strain of pheasants. Biologists had hoped that the Sichuan variety, which were thought to utilize more brushy cover than grasslands, would hold the key. The DNR brought the new strain from China, raised them in a large facility, and stocked the birds in selected areas of the state. The program showed some positive results initially, but the loss of habitat—which has been even further exacerbated in recent years by high commodity (as in corn) prices, was too high a hurdle to overcome.

So in 2010, the DNR announced a new program—the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative. A community-based approach to restoring pheasant hunting, it’s a partnership between the DNR, other government agencies, and conservation groups to create and improve habitat and help rebuild our state’s pheasant-hunting legacy.

“We are giving greater focus to small-game hunting opportunities in Michigan,” says Russ Mason, DNR Wildlife Division chief. “We believe by restoring our high-quality pheasant hunting tradition, we can attract new hunters and bring back hunters who have left the sport.”

The effort began by identifying three county clusters (Huron/Sanilac/Tuscola, Hillsdale/Lenawee/Monroe and Gratiot/Saginaw/Clinton) where good public pheasant hunting land can be paired with private-land efforts to provide the habitat the birds need on a larger scale.

“We continue to have an interest and emphasis on managing for pheasants on state lands, but that isn’t going to be enough,” Stewart adds. “We need to do it on a landscape scale and we need to do it with community support.

“Efforts up to now have concentrated on small areas—50 acres here, a filter strip there, a single landowner who wants to do things for pheasants. Instead of a piecemeal approach, we’re going to make a focused effort on a larger scale. We need the whole package; food, nesting cover, winter cover, escape cover.”

The DNR has held community meetings and partnered with groups such as Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and the Wild Turkey Federation to help spread the word. Cooperatives have been formed in all the priority counties to help promote better habitat and get landowners to practice pheasant-friendly management. Some local Pheasants Forever groups will even provide the wild grass seed mixtures for fields or volunteer labor to clear brush.

It will take many years of effort for the Pheasant Restoration Initiative to pay dividends. But in the meantime, DNR biologists are guardedly optimistic that, because of ideal nesting conditions this spring, pheasant hunters will have improved prospects when Oct. 20 arrives this fall.

-Bob Gwizdz