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Good habitat management sometimes makes strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the tale of the quail and the cow.

This is no fable. Parts of some state wildlife areas along the South Platte River are bare and trampled, as if a herd of wild bison had stampeded through, eating almost everything in sight.

In fact, wild bison being in short supply these days, the tramplers are domestic cattle.

Wildlife managers have recruited cows on purpose to ravage swathes of state wildlife land. It is the cows' job to eat up and mash down heavy cover while their cloven hooves punch holes in the soil.

The immediate results look like an ugly, scarred mistake, as if a herd had broken out of a neighboring feedlot. Some public-lands hunters are alarmed when they discover the destruction.

"Unfortunately, we have to make it look bad to make it look good next year or the year after," said Ed Gorman, small game coordinator for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Gorman said selective livestock grazing is part of the agency's plan for improving habitat for bobwhite quail, pheasants, turkeys, songbirds, deer and other wildlife along the river.

Other projects - food plots and shrubs - show almost immediate benefits. But the benefits of grazing come with a time lag.

Where cows are allowed to munch, dense thickets of mature cover give way to open terrain. Sunlight enters and the disturbed soil brings forth new life in the form of annual forbs - weeds, if you will. Quail, in particular, thrive on the new seed crop.

The South Platte River corridor is the nearest Colorado comes to having a quail capital, but much of it is too overgrown for quail. Area wildlife manager Larry Budde, in Brush, says some state wildlife areas have benefited from bovine cleanups.

"Some of the river bottom is really decadent," Budde said. "It is snowberry and willow thickets so dense you can hardly walk through. We need to set the (plant) succession back to a more early type of growth."

Budde said healthy bobwhite populations already have resulted from several years of selective grazing at the Cottonwood and Elliott SWAs in Morgan County and the Dune Ridge and Tamarack SWAs in Logan County.

On those properties, the division, in partnership with Colorado State University, employs cattle belonging to CSU's Range Experiment Station near Akron. Elsewhere, private herds are used.

The division also works with conservation groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, which has been supervising a cattle-driven cleanup at Brush SWA and Jean K. Toole SWA in Morgan County.

Typically, the grazing is restricted to strips of land, or cells, which are smaller than 60 acres. The cattle graze intensely, until older brush is removed and the soil is stirred up anew.

"Then we move them out," Budde said. "We don't leave them in one place all summer, and we don't graze every acre. We move them around, so you get a mosaic.

"It definitely will improve the quail habitat. Burning would do it almost as well. But cattle open cause more forbs to come because of the trampling effect."

By October, when the upland game and deer hunting seasons roll around, the cattle are gone, leaving some hunters distraught over their stark legacy in places. Not to worry. This is one area where livestock grazing has been a success, not a flop, for wildlife.

QUAIL INITIATIVE: On the surface, Colorado's share of a new federal habitat program looks stingy. But, then, Colorado is a marginal quail state. Ed Gorman says the state will make the best of whatever benefits the Northern Bobwhite Quail Habitat Initiative might bring.

The initiative is part of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's heralded Conservation Reserve Program. It will pay some farmers to plant brood-rearing cover for quail along field borders.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency believes the plan will create 250,000 acres of quail habitat in 35 states and should help to counter a leading cause of quail decline, increased grassland cultivation.

Enrollment of the 250,000 acres is limited, with only six states - Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Texas - allowed to sign up 20,000 acres. Colorado farmers may sign up only 600 acres. or 303-892-5481

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