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Drought Effects and Upland Bird Numbers Frequently Asked Questions

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Drought Effects and Upland Bird Numbers Frequently Asked Questions

Many hunters use Open Fields and Waters (OFW) sites as well as other private or public lands year after year and expect huntable habitat to be present. However, due to the exceptional drought conditions across the state of Nebraska, much of the upland habitat was hayed or grazed through the emergency declaration authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This has prompted a few common questions from hunters:

How did the drought affect Nebraska and upland birds?
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor 100 percent of the state is categorized as being in severe drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands due to the extreme drought conditions. The haying or grazing activities occurred after the nesting season which is typically early May through mid-July. Nest success should not have been affected, but the extreme heat and the lack of habitat may have had a negative effect on chick survival.

What is emergency haying or grazing?
Haying or grazing was authorized to provide emergency forage for livestock. Some CRP contracts allow periodic haying or grazing as a tool to maintain diverse wildlife habitat. Due to the severity of the drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has extended grazing on CRP land through November 30, 2012.

Visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency website for more information on the emergency haying and grazing of CRP or recent News Releases.

How does haying or grazing benefit CRP?
Although the reduction of habitat can be initially detrimental, both haying and grazing can also have positive future effects on CRP once normal rainfall patters return. Benefits include the removal of unwanted trees, disturbance of thick grass stands which promotes plant diversity for better nesting and brood rearing habitat, and can be a great pre-treatment for habitat upgrades (disking, interseeding).

How much habitat is left after haying or grazing?
Landowners who took advantage of the emergency haying or grazing are allowed to hay 50 percent or graze 100 percent of a CRP field. Depending on which technique they used, this could have left 50 percent of the CRP field with huntable habitat. Although less common, there are CRP fields that are due for the FSA required management practice and in this case 100 percent of that CRP field may be hayed. These management practices are designed to maintain the diverse wildlife habitat over the life of the CRP contract. Statewide we estimate 85 percent of the OFW sites have been hayed or grazed to some extent. Some areas may not have suitable upland game habitat cover.

How was the landscape affected by the drought?
In general, habitat throughout the state has been affected by the drought. Even areas such as rangelands that were not hayed or grazed may have sparse vegetation due to the harsh growing conditions this summer.

How is this going to affect bird numbers this year? 
Overall upland bird numbers are down this year, mostly related to the extreme drought and excessive heat, resulting in high mortality of chicks. Further, some upland birds are known to curtail breeding activities during prolonged drought and high heat. There are scattered reports of good upland bird hunting from opening weekend; however these reports come from areas that have good cover. Birds have been forced in to isolated pockets where suitable habitat still exists and where competition for limited resources could impact overall condition and, thus, overwinter survival.

Where do I go to find birds this year?
Please call the district offices for more specific information for each county.
Check the Lock, Stock and Bedlam blog for weekly updates.
Check the Game and Parks Outdoor Reports for hunter accounts from the field.

Why are these hayed or grazed fields included in the Public Access Atlas?
Emergency haying and grazing started in early July and took place over a one to two month period. In order to produce the atlas before the start of the hunting seasons, Game and Parks was not able to identify which tracts were hayed or grazed prior to the atlas.  However, keeping these sites in the atlas allow hunting opportunity for other species not affected by haying or grazing.

Does the Commission pay for access on sites that are hayed or grazed?
If landowner actions result in significant habitat degradation, payment will be adjusted or withheld. Game and Parks staff will inspect these areas and adjust contract payments for acres that no longer provide acceptable wildlife cover.


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