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Bird populations grow, hunters’ range expands and farmers, small-town businesses benefit
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Bird populations grow, hunters’ range expands and farmers, small-town businesses benefit

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CULBERTSON — Rural communities across Nebraska have enjoyed the economic and social activity associated with pheasant hunting since the 1920s.

Opening day of pheasant season traditionally intermingled rural and urban Nebraskans like no other event, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said.

But as pheasant populations started declining after their peak in the 1940s and ’50s, the number of hunters trailed off and the benefits to rural communities generated by pheasant hunting have been greatly reduced.

Now, Nebraska is reloading. 

Nebraska’s Focus on Pheasants initiative started in 2002 in response to continued statewide declines in pheasant populations. It pays Nebraska landowners in selected areas to restore high-quality habitat that benefits the game birds, hunters and small-town main streets. Its goal was to give hunters more pheasants to shoot while encouraging landowners to recognize the importance of providing wildlife habitat on their farmland.

One-Box habitat chair Bob Allen said 400 acres in Custer County are being developed through the Focus on Pheasants program. One-Box has participated in Focus on Pheasants since the program’s inception in 2002, and Allen said the amount of land has grown each year. 

Allen said he’s also noticed more pheasants popping up each year, and One-Box had its highest number of hunters during its 50th anniversary hunt in 2010. 

“Since I started logging bird populations in 2006, it’s gone up every year since then,” Allen said. 

It was a partnership among the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Pheasants Forever and the U.S. Agriculture Department’s state office. Between 2002 and 2007, the program involved more than 45,000 acres at a cost of $1.3 million statewide.

The initiative was revised and relaunched last year.

A recent Game and Parks Wildlife Division report says there is little doubt that changes in land-use practices over the years have had more effect on pheasant populations than any other factors, including weather and predators.

Small fields of grain and hay crops interspersed with pasture and idle ground generated — by happy accident — nearly perfect conditions during the middle of the 20th century for sustaining high pheasant densities, providing good nesting, brood-rearing, escape and winter habitats within close proximity.

But pheasants no longer were a reliable byproduct of cropland agriculture after field sizes grew, wheatland acres declined, idle land became scarce and weed control became more effective during the last several decades.

“Clearly, the circumstances that once supported high pheasant densities have all but disappeared in today’s agricultural landscapes,” according to the Game and Parks report.

Only parts of southwest and south-central Nebraska, plus parts of the Panhandle, retain some of the ideal habitat configurations.     

Focus on Pheasants currently is crafting habitat at seven sites across the state. In addition to southwest Nebraska, they are Hickory Ridge Wildlife Management Area and a private grassland parcel in Johnson County, the One-Box Hunt area in Custer County, and wildlife management areas at Branched Oak Lake near Lincoln and at the Sherman and Harlan County reservoirs.

Hunters in southwest Nebraska reported an average 80 pheasants per hunting party while afield last year. This year’s hunting season continues through January, and no official results are available.

The ability to offer attractive financial and other incentives to landowners in exchange for creating and managing habitat is critical to rebuilding Nebraska’s pheasant population because about 97 percent of the state’s land is privately owned, Game and Parks says.

Farmer Rick Cook of Culbertson and his landlords have 750 acres enrolled in the southwest focus area. They are paid $15 per acre for keeping stubble at the optimum height and $3 per acre for allowing walk-in access to hunters.

Cook said the program not only benefits hunting but matches his goals for protecting cropland from wind and water erosion and from drying out. The program requires farmers to leave at least 15 inches of wheat stubble when harvesting fields. Cook also leaves his milo stubble high.

“The taller stubble protects the birds, and I’ve noticed a lot more of them,” Cook said. “I even saw quail in every field.”

Tall stubble also could help a farmer’s bottom line. Properly managed tall wheat stubble potentially may yield higher profits of up to $39.50 per acre, according to a Kansas State University study.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that the initiative is producing pheasants and attracting hunters in the southwest, said Andy Moore, a Game and Parks wildlife biologist in North Platte.

Moore hunted the area after opening weekend and saw hunters from several states.

“I was in a little town of about 15 people — all it has is a grain elevator and a convenience store — and saw eight or nine hunters eating lunch,” he said. “The small town gas stations, restaurants and hotels are benefiting.”

New money spent in towns across Nebraska has a statewide impact, said Tom Doering of the Nebraska Travel and Tourism Division in Lincoln.

For every dollar spent, there is $1.70 in spin-off value, he said. The original business pays suppliers and employees, who re-spend money in the economy.

Cook said he regularly sees hunter vehicles from as far as Texas and Arkansas at the convenience store in Culbertson.

Local hunters have noticed.

“I’ve had more call to hunt in the last two years than I’ve ever had,” Cook said.

Hub Regional Editor Jessica Kokesh contributed to this story.     

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