SUBLETTE, Kan. -- The day starts before dawn, with Kyle Simmons bumping along a frozen field in the back of a red Chevy pickup, the wind abusing him as he yanks a befuddled bird from a cage and chucks it out of the truck.
The bird flaps cramped wings, soars, circles, then plops down into a shelter of buffalo grass.
Simmons grabs another bird. Yank, chuck, soar, plop.
By 8 a.m., Simmons will have dumped about 80 ringneck pheasants into this field. Then the hunters will arrive.
This is how pheasant season looks these days across much of the Midwest. Hunters who don't have time to stalk for days and days in search of wild birds are increasingly turning to private preserves that stock their fields with pen-raised pheasants just before each shooting party arrives.
The promise of easy-to-find action brings thousands of hunters to preserves in rural Kansas each year and juices the economies of forlorn little towns such as Sublette. Kansas boasts 134 preserves today, up from 85 four years ago. That's big business for a state ever hungry for tourists.
Despite their popularity, however, the preserves are in trouble.
The federal government has threatened to shut down hundreds of them throughout the Midwest because they operate on land enrolled in a conservation program that pays farmers to plant their fields in native grasses instead of crops. The farmers pocket $20 to $70 an acre for planting grasses. And it's illegal for them to seek further profit by turning those fields into preserves and charging hunters to tramp through the very grasses the government is paying them to conserve.
The threat of a crackdown has alarmed preserve owners -- not to mention rural residents who count on pheasant season to bring tourist dollars to their one-block towns.
Take Sublette. It's just a few strips of blacktop -- population 1,300 -- in the southwestern corner of Kansas. There are grain elevators, the American Legion post, the Cattleman's Cafe -- with its beef-heavy menu of Cousin Chuck's Cheeseburger and Neighbor Vern's Chopped Steak. And that's about it. Sure, Sublette has a beauty about it: The fields roll on and on, and the sky stretches icy blue forever. But there's nothing much here to draw tourists.
There is a brief sizzle of excitement each November on opening weekend of the wild pheasant hunting season. The Pheasant Inn Motel books all 19 of its rooms months in advance. (A sign at the front desk warns guests not to pluck birds in their rooms and not to clean guns with the bath towels.) This year, so many hunters showed up that the motel restaurant ran out of T-bone steaks, and manager Marty Evans had to raid her home fridge to keep her customers happy.
But after opening weekend, wild bird hunting sags.
Although Kansas officials have mapped 500,000 acres of land available for wild pheasant shooting, many out-of-towners echo visiting hunter Rick Hauschild's complaint that "I can walk my tail off for three days and see just two birds."
That's why they turn to the preserves. For $200 to $300 a day, they get overnight lodging, three belly-busting meals, eight hours of hunting with guides and dogs -- and, at the end of the trip, cleaned chunks of meat to marinate, grill or fold into creamy pheasant pot pie. (Most pheasant hunters gladly eat all they bag; taxidermy just isn't big with game birds. "Wives," explains Vern Hibbard, who runs Pheasants Galore, "don't want [stuffed birds] in their living rooms.")
Hunters from California and New York, from Brazil and Scotland, find their way to Sublette's three preserves. Kansas law permits the preserves to operate from Sept. 1 through the end of March, nearly three times as long as the normal hunting season. They "create jobs and wealth," a recent Wichita Eagle editorial noted, "in counties that don't have many other economic options."
Or, as one hunter from Texas put it: "If [the preserve] wasn't here, we wouldn't be in Kansas."
There are no fences on these preserves, and some birds escape. The hunters don't mind. This day is about good company, good sport, good food and good exercise, as much as it is about bagging pheasants. "I get as much fun out of watching the dogs work as I do out of shooting," says Bill Dodd, a 49-year-old geologist from Oklahoma, clad in a camouflage jacket.
Preserve enthusiasts insist the experience is every bit as challenging and sporting as a wild hunt. "It's not like the birds just stand up and say, 'Here I am,' " says Clayton Dixon, president of the North American Sportsmen's Association.
Government bureaucrats aren't so sure.
In a directive ordering preserves to stop using conservation grassland, Farm Service Agency administrator Parks Shackelford wrote that pay-to-shoot hunting of pen-raised birds is "only marginally related to the sport of hunting." At the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department, wildlife expert Gene Brehm adds: "We consider hunting something you do with a wild and free population [of prey]."
For preserve hunters, those are fighting words.
Questions of sport aside, Shackelford justifies his proposed crackdown on the preserves by explaining that commercial hunting might damage native grasses because it places "much greater than normal pressure on the land."
Preserve operators have a quick retort for that criticism, too.
Yes, they may drive pickup trucks through their fields to scatter pheasants before a shoot. Now and then, they might even mow the native grasses to make for easier walking. But overall, they insist, they're not harming the habitat that the government is paying them to preserve. After all, it wouldn't be in their interests to strip the fields bare; they want pheasants to roost there until the hunters arrive, not fly off in search of cover. Plus, they point out, they always release more birds than they shoot.
"It's not like we're raping and pillaging the land," says Jeff White, who runs Sublette's Golden Prairie preserve.
Even Shackelford agrees that well-run preserves can be "consistent" with the government's conservation goals.
His original memo, in October, threatened to shut down every preserve on conservation land. Under ferocious pressure from hunters, Shackelford backed off and promised to leave the preserves alone for this season. When he returns to the issue later this year, Shackelford says he will use a "common-sense approach" to find a less inflammatory solution.
Preserve owners hope so.
"Grain prices are as low as they've ever been. Cattle and hogs are as low as they've ever been. Oil's down. Everything Kansas has to offer is on a low trend right now," says Ken Corbet, who runs the Ravenwood Lodge preserve near Topeka. "So if you can bring in a bunch of hunters, that helps the local economies quite a bit."
Pub Date: 1/18/99