Open Season on Grouse
The Sixth Session of the Nebraska Territory Legislative Assembly passed the first game laws in 1859. They forbade the killing, ensnaring and trapping of the “prairie hen or chicken” and grouse from March 1 to July 15. Outside of those four-and-one-half months as many prairie grouse could be taken by any means for any purpose desired. During the 1800s, and even into the mid-1900s, the word “chicken,” when applied to wild game, was loosely used. Sometimes it included both the greater prairie chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse, other times only referred to the greater prairie chicken. Time and location usually suggests which was meant.
Statutes passed by the 1866 Legislative Assembly, one year before Nebraska was granted statehood, changed the open season on prairie grouse from the first day of August through March, generously giving grouse hatched in June the last two weeks of July to learn to fly before the slaughter began. University of Nebraska entomologist and ornithologist Myron H. Swenk, in the January 1936 edition of The Nebraska Bird Review, summarized the carnage wrecked on prairie grouse:
In the last number of the Review reference was made to the wanton destruction of Greater Prairie Chickens in Nebraska during the 1860s and earlier 1870s, during which period these birds could be hunted with dog or gun, trapped, sold, or shipped without restriction, and the statement was made that hunters would commonly kill from fifty to as high as 200 prairie chickens in a day. As evidence of this statement, the Omaha Republican of September 8, 1865, tells how two days earlier two parties of Omaha hunters shot, respectively, 422 and 287 prairie chickens in one day. Again, the Omaha Herald of September 10, 1866, tells of one hunter killing 192 prairie chickens in one day. This heavy shooting was done mostly in August and early September, when the young birds of the year were not yet fully grown, and hence still relatively unsuspicious. Later in the season, with the coming of cold weather and snow, the prairie chickens were easily trapped, and many thousands of them were thus taken during those years.
Sportsmen of the day vociferous attempted to separate themselves from market hunters, but in cases where a sportsman was shooting dozens of birds a day and selling them on the open market, the distinction was transparent. Most were sold to the same market and shipped to large eastern cities as were the birds killed by market hunters. The real distinction was that market hunters were honest about why they were killing birds. It was for the money.
How many prairie grouse were killed and shipped to markets will never be known, but it must have defied credibility. About the only record of the extent of prairie grouse market hunting, and the most often cited, are those of Samuel Aughey, and would have been mostly, if not entirely, referred to prairie chickens shipped. Aughey held the University of Nebraska’s first chair of natural history from 1875 until 1883. Aughey was, for practical purposes, the state ornithologist. A minister by training, Aughey wrote prolifically of the state’s geology, geography, fauna and flora.
Aughey estimated at least 300,000 prairie chickens were killed and shipped out of 30 eastern and southeastern Nebraska counties in 1874, and that six eastern counties alone shipped 50,000 chickens that year. A Lincoln dealer shipped 19,000 prairie chickens to eastern cities, principally Boston and New York, during a six-week period during the winter of 1875. Approximately half of the shipment came from Lancaster County alone. A state university regent living in Tecumseh in Johnson County estimated that hunters and trappers from Tecumseh and Sterling shipped 6,500 and 3,500 chickens, respectively, during the winter of 1874-75. In addition to the 10,000 birds shipped, he speculated it could easily be stated that at least 2,000 more birds were consumed in the county, as people generally survived on game that winter. A Pawnee City native estimated the number of birds he knew that were caught or shot must have been at least 20,000 prairie chickens in 1874 in Pawnee County alone. Prairie chickens brought $4 per dozen in Chicago.
While Aughey’s estimates of the number of prairie chickens killed and shipped to eastern markets are the best that have been found, their accuracy is somewhat cast into suspicion in that he was dismissed from the University for falsifying information in other quarters of his professional career. That said, it is a good bet if Aughey’s estimates erred, they erred on the conservative side, as he only sampled a fraction of the slaughter of prairie chickens in eastern Nebraska in those years. Market hunters and game sellers were wont to not keep detailed records, even though, if they sold or bought game during the open season, they were within the limits of the law.
Even Omaha hunters did not need to go far for their chicken shooting. Omaha World-Herald outdoor writer Sandy Griswold wrote in the June 15, 1902 edition of earlier days, before he came to Omaha in 1886.
Reports come to me from almost all parts of the state of the prospects of a wonderful crop of chickens this fall…. Of course, this is a mistake, and those making it are undoubtedly ambitious young gunners and sportsmen who have little or no knowledge of the former abundance of this grand game bird. Why, twenty-five years ago when the city of Omaha, west of the court house, was little better than an unbroken thicket, all that was necessary for the shooter to do was to tramp or drive out to the vicinity of the present site of the poor farm and get all the chicken shooting he could attend to. An hour’s work was generally sufficient to accumulate all the birds a man could carry. Today the gunner is a lucky individual, indeed, who can secure his three or four dozen birds in twenty-four hours....
As game birds vanished from states to the east, well-heeled sportsmen came to hunt Nebraska’s seemingly unlimited abundance of prairie chickens, and they were not disappointed, even yet in the 1890s. Articles in national magazines touted the wingshooting to be found in Nebraska, and rail lines such as the Chicago & North Western that crossed northern Nebraska actively promoted bird hunting. The following account is from the December 18, 1873 issue of Forest and Stream magazine of a hunt near Fremont.
Our correspondent, ‘Luke Tripp,’ tells of the outfit of a swell sportsman whom he met out on the plains near Fremont, Nebraska. The gentlemen in question, Mr. M., hailed from Chicago, and was wont to take a two month’s cruise every year after prairie chickens. ‘In the first place,’ says Luke, ‘he had a magnificent tent, about fifteen feet in diameter, plenty of robes and blankets, two India rubber beds, and several pillows, and a pair of bellows to blow them up to comfortable proportions; also an India rubber bathing tub. He employed three men; one to look after the dogs, guns, ammunition, &c., one to cook, and the other to drive and take care of the horses; his hunting wagon was complete; underneath the hind part was a large wire box to put the game in, and underneath the fore part a large zinc reservoir for water; on the sides of the box were brackets for guns, and under the seats closets for ammunition, and an extra large one for the whiskey jug. M. M. had also plenty of provisions both wet and dry, and in one particular box a miniature tobacco shop.’ A luxurious menu this. And the hunting done by Mr. M., the Captain, Max, and Tripp was something to astonish our powder-burners down East. Luke says, ‘By sunrise one morning we were bringing down the prairie chickens at the rate of about a hundred an hour; after indulging in this sport in the farmer’s new cut rye fields for about two hours, we drove around over the prairie and picked up scattering ones. That afternoon the Captain and Max drove out from Fremont and the next day we had glorious sport. Just imagine four hunters in a line, following six dogs down a hundred acre rye stubble; first one dog would point and then another, keeping all hands tolerable busy until we got through. The next morning we all started to town, as Mr. M. expected some friends from town, and also wanted to express about five hundred chickens to other friends there.’
There was a curious, but essentially meaningless, turn of events to protect prairie grouse in the mid-1870s in the midst of a devastating Rocky Mountain grasshopper invasion that had plagued the state since the mid-1860s. Grouse were well known to consume large numbers of insects, some at the time claiming as many 150 a day. Then, as yet today, agriculture trumped all other interests in Nebraska and so the 1877 State Legislature passed a law making it illegal to “kill any wild bird within this state at any season of the year, or to take or destroy any wild bird’s eggs or nest at any time.” There was an exception, of course, for migratory game birds as they only passed through the state and if Nebraska hunters did not kill them, hunters to the north or south would. The law provided for a $5 to $15 fine for “every wild bird taken, wounded, or killed, and for every wild bird’s egg or nest taken or destroyed,” and if the fine was not paid the perpetrator was sent to jail.
The law provided full protection to grouse along with other birds but was not enforced, and prairie grouse continued to be killed and trapped for the market, increasingly from central and western Nebraska as it was settled. The statute was repealed by the 1885 Legislative Assembly. Apparently the plague of “locust” had retreated back to the Rocky Mountains, and there was money to be made in the marketing of game birds. The same legislation, at least on paper, provided some restrictions on the killing of grouse as it stated: “It shall be unlawful for any person to kill, ensnare, or trap any grouse between the first day of January and the first day of September in each year, or to “buy, sell, ship, transport, or carry, or have in possession any such animal or birds” during the same months of the year; and it was similarly illegal for “...any person, agent, or employe of any association, corporation, railroad company, or express company to receive, carry, transport, or ship any such animal or bird at any time of the year.” While seeming to be a progressive step, the legislation was as useless as the full protection provided by the 1877 statutes as it was not enforced.
Home of Field Trials
During the 1870s and 1880s, the great expanses of grasslands of central and western Nebraska were little changed from what they had been, certainly in comparison to the prairie chicken’s tallgrass prairie range in eastern Nebraska; and prairie chickens expanded their range westward as farmers broke the sod to plant small fields of grain. But as late as 1880, prairie chickens were still abundant enough in eastern Nebraska that one of only six hunting dog field trials held in the United States that year was held near Milford, the competition taking advantage of the abundance of native prairie chickens and quail. But the writing was on the wall. Nebraska’s prairie chicken range was being pushes northwest. The next year the trials were held near Norfolk, and by 1902 they were moved to O’Neill. An appealing description of Nebraska and its prairie grouse grounds appeared in a December 5, 1959 article, “Early Chicken Trails in Nebraska,” by James B. Kellogg and appeared in the American Field magazine:
Since the inaugural event in 1880 to the present time, Nebraska has had periods of field trial and bird dog limelight and shadows. By the very nature of her soil and the land uses after the turn of the century, nothing else could be expected. She was destined to the same wildlife boat as all or most of the other states. Fortunately, however, in Northern Nebraska, stretching 250 miles east and west and 150 miles north and south, there lies an area of tall grass, Sandhills, blow outs, pot-holes, lakes, whiteface cattle, windmills, fences, corrals, timber claims, prairie chickens and grouse. This area, the Sandhills, does not have the scenic wonders of the Grand Canyon but it has its magnitude; it does not have the vastness of the Sahara but it has its solitudes; it comes nearer being desolate and still inhabited, useless and still valuable, than any place on earth.
The low rolling Sandhills country near O’Neill was also the headquarters for bird dog trainers from the east who came each summer to work young dogs on native prairie grouse. “The rolling hills, abundance of game, and affability of ranchers in this section of the state lent itself to a near perfect training situation,” the same American Field article stated. The last field trial was held at O’Neill in 1906. Again quoting Kellogg: “Homesteaders kept filtering into the vicinity and with their 160 acres fenced and plowed, the chicken and grouse moved back deeper into the hills. Former businessmen near O’Neil have recounted incidents of tremendous game slaughters during that period. With the aid of a ‘settin’ dog’ they recall stacks of birds ‘the size of a farrowing shed,’ ‘windrows of ‘em,’ or ‘we had ‘em mounted up on the buckboard.’ Every good game area has suffered the same sickening devastation.” The September 22, 1906, edition of the American Field reported: “There was a good deal of talk about the scarcity of birds and gruesome tales were related of the terrific slaughter of birds during the months of July and August. The average citizen of Nebraska is in a state of moral turpitude so far as game laws were concerned. July 4 is generally accepted as the logical opening of the season, and the past two months the coveys have been sadly scattered and destroyed.”
The grouse hunting and trapping season was closed from January through August in 1885. At the next legislative session, no doubt under pressure from those who wanted to kill grouse when it was easy and they were still young and tender birds, the legislature liberalized the season, closing it only from April through July. There were still no restrictions on the number of grouse that could be killed, or selling grouse or shipping grouse out-of-state so long as it was done during the open season. Prairie grouse were a crop to be harvested. Not until 1891 was it “...unlawful for any person, agent, or employee of any association, corporation, railroad company, or express company, to receive, carry, transport, or ship any such animal or bird at any time of the year.” That statute, making it illegal to ship prairie grouse by commercial carrier even when the season was open did not stop market hunting or the sale of wild game in the market place; and it really did not stop wild game from being shipped in-state or out-of-state because like laws preceding it there was no enforcement. Similarly ignored were the legal shooting seasons. There were no game wardens, and county sheriff departments had little interest in the illegal killing of grouse by friends and neighbors. The following column by Sandy Griswold from the Omaha Bee on August 5, 1894 clearly lays out the situation.
The present season has been a good one for the prairie chicken crop in Nebraska if it has not been for any other. The early portion of the season was perfect for nesting, and since the little chicks have hatched out there have been no violent storms to kill them off. There was a large number of old birds left over from previous years and reports from the central and western part of the state indicate that there is an unusual supply of young birds this season. In spite of the fact that the law does not permit the shooting of the birds until September 1, it is a notorious fact that the hunting of these birds commences all over Nebraska early in July, and usually by the time the season is here there are very few left in the vicinity of the towns, and the sportsman who respects the law must either be content with no shooting of a satisfactory character, or else must go some distance from the town to get it.
This year it promises to be little better, for it has been so insufferably hot and dry that hunting by either man or dog has been out of the question. This had delayed the slaughter somewhat and allowed the birds to grow strong of wing, and they will not fall quite so easy a prey as formerly, and for this reason there is likely to be good shooting left when the open season arrives without being compelled to go out of the world to find it.
The very thing that has operated to save them so far this season, however, will cause a still more ruthless war of extermination later on unless the sportsmen of the state take a hand to stop it. There are every year a large number of men in this state who make their living by hunting these birds and selling them, and the failure or partial failure of the crops in a large portion of the state will vastly add to this army and the attendant slaughter of the birds. Men who ordinarily do not think it worth while or who have something else to do which pays them better will this year see in the birds an opportunity to make a little money, and will accept it. To make chicken hunting pay the hunter must bring to bag an average of two dozen birds per day, and at this rate even one hunter will kill an astonishing number in a season. If something is not done to stop this slaughter birds will be few and far between next year.
All true sportsmen will be content to await the coming of September 1, when chicken hunting and chicken shooting will be lawful. And by the way there is a vast difference between chicken hunting and chicken shooting, as many an ardent adventurer has found out. At this season of the year there is no sport in either. It is too oppressive to tramp through dried stubble, sere grass or burnt corn for the former, and an outrage in the latter, even if you or your dog is so fortunate as to locate a covey of the soft, flabby, pin-feathered chickings. There is no skill in this even required in the slaughter, which is attended with neither enthusiasm nor excitement.
Of course, a chicken or grouse is at its very best for table purposes when but half grown, but this is not argument in extenuation of their unlawful killing, and a full grown bird is sufficiently toothsome to answer all gastronomic requirements.
So late were significant laws protecting prairie grouse in coming, and so toothless was enforcement of them, Griswold would cut-and-past the same writing again and again for his columns for the next twenty years. Ironically, in 1895, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law prohibiting the killing, selling, injuring, or possession except for breeding purposes of any "ringneck Mongolian pheasant, Japanese pheasant, any copper pheasant or scholmeringn, any trapopan pheasant, silver pheasant or golden pheasant.”
Hunting For Cash
Market hunters started their killing in mid- to late summer because grouse were young and guileless, and before legitimate sportsmen had a chance to reduce their abundance. When it was still legal to ship birds to market during the open season, the birds were gutted and stored in large icehouses in small towns until opening day. Griswold wrote that in November 1895: “Chicken and quail were never more expensive in the Omaha market…” with a brace of prairie chickens fetching $1.10 a dozen. In his July 12, 1896 Omaha Bee column, he wrote: “The birds are slaughtered as soon as they are large enough to fly and shipped out by the market hunters, and the warfare does not cease until they are killed off or until the work fails to return a profit.” At the same time, Griswold unabashedly reported the large kills of “chickens” by Omaha hunting friends. In a letter to the Omaha World-Herald in late-September, 1894, for example, a hunter bragged he and two companions bagged 187 prairie chickens in three days near O’Neill.
In 1897 the grouse-hunting season was September to the end of the year. There were no limits on the number that could be shot. Grouse could be sold on the market except during May through August. It remained illegal to ship grouse for sale within or outside Nebraska at any time of the year, but that law was blatantly ignored. In his August 22, 1897 column, Griswold quoted from a recent article in Field and Stream magazine:
Notwithstanding the enormous destruction of the prairie chicken by man and nature, it preserves its existence and numbers to an astonishing extent. This is due partly to its wonderful prolificness, partly to its vigorous, hardy nature, and adaptiveness to widely different conditions of climate, food supply and habitat, and partly to the adventitious circumstance of the great grain fields, which are consequent to man’s domicile throughout the birds’ habitat, and the attendant furnishing of a food supply in greater abundance and certainty. These general conditions prevail, although in certain sections, large and small, the incursions of sportsmen from other states, in addition to destruction caused by local sportsmen, has resulted in partial or total extermination in such localities.
In his column a week later, Griswold noted that two of his regular hunting companions had shot 70 prairie chickens in one day near Neligh. Other hunters north of Norfolk reported poor success. The prairie chickens continued to follow the plow west, but it was vanishing from parts of the state where the plow had been employed too extensively. In November 1897, Griswold published a letter from his longtime hunting companion and prominent Omaha sportsman, John J. Hardin who was then residing on his ranch in the Sandhills north of Paxton:
Three years ago during the drouth hunters came up in this country by the thousands and killed everything that could run or fly. Consequently there was no chicken or grouse shooting during the seasons of ’95 and ’96. But this year there are just thousands of grouse and the game hog (or market hunter) is getting in his work. Just to show you what some of the game dealers are doing. Hyannis has a little cold storage house, and one day last week the proprietor bought 800 grouse. How does that sound? Whitman, Lakeside, Alliance and all the towns in that territory have each a game buyer.
The Lacey Act
When the 19th century ended, there were still no limits on the number of grouse that could be killed, nor prohibition against selling, only a prohibition on shipping by common carriers. But change was on the wind. On May 25, 1900, President William McKinley signed the Lacey Act into law. The law prohibited the interstate shipment of birds and mammals illegally taken under state law. The impetus for the law was to stop the killing of birds for their plumes, which were popular in lady’s fashions at the time, and killing game animals for commercial sale in markets and restaurants. At the time, all wild game was considered the sovereign right of states to regulate, even migratory species that crossed state lines. It was the federal government’s first attempt to encourage states to impose reasonable limits on the taking and selling of wild game. The law did little to curb market hunters as there were few federal officers to enforce the law, and where there was money to be made laws were circumvented by one means or another. A man from Dunning, under the pseudonym Bona, wrote the World-Herald on July 15, 1900, making it clear that grouse were being shipped east when the hunting season was closed in violation of the Lacey Act:
Commencing yesterday a gang of three lawless hunters began hunting out from this town, and almost any night, for the next six weeks, if not sooner stopped, it will be an easy matter to catch the gang at the B.&M. [Burlington and Missouri railroad] station with 400 to 500 young birds. Burt Harris purchases the birds from these outlaws, paying from $2.30 to $2.50 per dozen; while he disposes of them to eastern parties for $6 and $7 per dozen, shipping them by Adams express as ‘dressed poultry.’ If you know of a good detective who would like to make a good haul, put him on. He can come to either Dunning or Anselmo any night and bag the culprits. Citizens hereabouts are timid about swearing out warrants of arrest, for these ‘rustlers’ would not hesitate at any crime to ‘get back’ on the informer. Cattlemen suffer by having their wire fences cut, their cattle shot into, and their water tanks tampered with. What this state needs is a game warden. If this wholesale violation of our game laws is not stopped, Omaha and other city sportsmen will find just as good hunting in their business thoroughfares as they will out here in the ‘sand hills.’
Government had long dallied addressing the problem of market hunting but pressure to do so was building. A letter from the Omaha Gun Club to the governor appealing for game laws and enforcement of them solicited a perfunctory political response from Governor Poynter in the summer of 1900:
I am glad that you have brought this matter to my attention, and I will endeavor to take it up in the most vigorous manner, and do what I can to enforce the law. I will bring it to the attention of the county attorneys of the various counties in the state, and urge that they prosecute all violators of the law. The law is certainly very stringent, not only against individuals but also against railroad and express companies, refrigerator men, and hotels, and if the law was vigorously enforced our game would be protected.
The slaughter of grouse for the market continued unabated. The penetration of the Chicago & North Western Railroad along the Sandhills’ northern border in the early-1880s, and Burlington Northern Railroad diagonally through the center of Nebraska later the same decade, not only made the region more accessible to sport hunters, it facilitated the shipping of wild game east by market hunters. On July 29, 1900 a man wrote the World-Herald of 800 grouse being shipped out of Dunning in one day, and all that was needed to ship via rail in violation of state and federal law was to cross the palm of a train man with coins. In August there was a report of more than 1,000 young chickens in cold storage in Alliance awaiting September 1 when they could be legally placed on the market. Griswold received a letter in mid-August there were 5,000 prairie chickens in cold storage at Johnstown. Similar reports came from almost every small town along the Burlington and Chicago & North Western railways. Now and then there was an arrest, as that of William Harris at Hyannis who was fined $1,000 for shooting grouse out of season and storing them in an icehouse to be shipped when the season opened. It was said Harris paid the fine with cash from his pocket. During the summer haying season, grouse were frequently on the menu for haying crews, the young birds being killed with buggy whips and long sticks. And, once the season opened, accounts poured in of a legitimate sportsman making grouse kills of 48 one day, or a group four hunters killing 65 in half-a-day’s hunting.
“No game law will be potent until some one is appointed or elected whose duty it shall be to enforce it,” Bancroft sportsman John Everett wrote in a March 11, 1900 letter to the World-Herald. “That which is everybody’s business is nobody’s business. Our legislature meets and enacts game law after game law none of which ever amounted to any thing or ever will till one is enacted which will provide for a game warden in each county.”
The First State Game Wardens
The 1901 Nebraska Legislature repealed the 1879 statute creating the Fish Commission, replacing it with the Game and Fish Commission; and put in place the state’s first comprehensive wildlife law code, and holding the promise of slowing the plummeting course of game animals in Nebraska. Under it, for the first time, hunting and fishing licenses were required for all male hunters and anglers over the age of 18 when outside of their county of residence; and daily and possession limits were placed on the number game animals that could be taken. Without exception they were unreasonably liberal, particularly in the case of waterfowl and shorebirds, and continued to allow hunting of pronghorns and deer even though they were essentially extirpated from the state. The prairie grouse hunting season was October and November. Twenty-five were allowed daily and 50 in possession.
The new Commission was funded with a $15,700 biennial budget, allowing for four full-time employees – a chief deputy warden and a traveling deputy, a superintendent of fish hatcheries and a clerical secretary. George P. Simpkins was named chief deputy, Nebraska’s first game warden, and allowed $500 annually for “traveling and subsistence expenses.” George L. Carter was appointed “traveling deputy.” Three other wardens were employed on a seasonal basis at salaries of $75 per month. Additionally, “special deputies” were appointed throughout the state to be the department’s eyes and ears, reporting the status of fish and game in their areas and any violations of the new game laws. The special deputies had authority to make arrests and issue citations, but initially served without any compensation.
Chief Deputy Simpkins wrote in the Commission’s 1901-1902 biennial report:
From the date of my appointment, the demand for the immediate enforcement of the law became insistent, thus proving that the law was one of the most popular ever passed by the Nebraska legislature. Previous to assuming the duties of the office I became aware that there was absolutely nothing to begin with whatever, as the enforcement of the fish laws by the Board of Fish Commissioners had been entirely neglected, and the money appropriated for this purpose being diverted to other channels, and no protection whatever being afforded our rapidly decreasing game. Under these deplorable circumstances, as soon as it became evident to the public that this department intended to rigidly enforce the law, the people and press were unanimous in their approval, and a widespread interest in the commission’s work became manifest throughout the state.
Simpkins enthusiasm and optimism, though, was largely without foundation. The legislature, subject to political whims and influences, continued to set the hunting and fishing seasons and take limits. In 1901, Nebraska was not far removed from its frontier days, and the right to hunt and fish unencumbered with regulations ranked with the right to breathe free air. The challenge of the paid game wardens was two-fold: covering a huge territory with two or three field men, and weaning Nebraskans off their old ways of gathering game for the table or commercial sale. Market hunting continued largely unabated, just better concealed. In one case, Nebraska wardens confiscated a shipment of nearly 600 prairie chickens and quail packed in barrels marked “sauer kraut.” When the barrel’s bungs were pulled the wardens indeed found sauerkraut, but further investigation revealed it was only in tin cups tacked over the holes on the inside of the barrel.
Had an adequate number of trained and qualified game wardens been authorized to enforce the new game laws, they could have made significant strides stemming the ever-declining number of game animals, as the new game law code required detailed labeling of all game while in transportation, shipping of all game animals was prohibited unless accompanied by the person who had legally taken them, and the export of all game animals outside of Nebraska was prohibited. Within the state, though, the sale of game remained legal for part of the year, the statute stating: “No game or fish shall be held in possession or placed upon the table of any hotel, restaurant, cafe, or boarding house, or named on its menu or bill of fare as food for its patrons, either under the name used in this act or under any other name or guise whatever except during the open season and for the period of five days thereafter.”
Law-abiding sportsmen foolishly expected immediate results in curtailing the market hunters. They were not forthcoming. Arrests for game law violations made good newspaper headlines but did not put a dent in market hunting or shooting out of season. Frank Dowling of Coleridge wrote the World-Herald in late-August 1901:
There is being more prairie chickens killed here in Cedar county this season than ever before. There are more birds than for several years, and one can hear the reports of guns any direction one goes. What course must be taken to stop these pot hunters? We thought there were to be game wardens appointed for each precinct in the county. Are there any game wardens at all? If there are, they are not attending to their duties, and something should be done to enforce the law.
Sandy Griswold, undeniably the most potent voice for Nebraska sportsmen at the time, and never failing to prominently expound his personal views, commented on the new game law in his September 8, 1901 World-Herald column:
Whatever may be the advantages to Nebraska of the new game law, in force for the first time this season, which forbids absolutely, almost, the export of game, it certainly has caused decided dissatisfaction among the sportsmen who have been in the habit of coming into this state for shooting. The ducking marshes of the sandhills and the chicken covers of the prairies have decided attractions for gunners from all over the east, and especially those of our adjoining states; the Nebraska grounds are within easy access of all shooters this side of Chicago, and have been resorted to by big parties from even further east who in the past have been accustomed to take immense bags of game home with them. The purpose of our non-export law is of course the most commendable one of putting an end to the shipment of game to the market. In this all sportsmen are interested, especially Nebraska sportsmen, and no valid objection can be made to the rigorous terms of the statute if the rigor were absolutely necessary to accomplish the purpose. As a result of this law one of Omaha’s most prominent commission men and always heretofore a tremendous handler of game, told me Saturday evening that he would not touch the business this fall at all, unless it was to handle small consignments of wild fowl shipped in from Texas, where there is no law against the killing of these birds, and which traffic would consequently be legal.
For the rest of his life and writing career, and they ended at the same time, Griswold strongly supported delaying the opening the grouse season until October. In his December 1, 1901 column he wrote what would become a predictably repeated prediction that sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens were destined for extinction.
In most parts of the state during the season just closed the birds were uncommonly plentiful, and yet but small bags were reported from any section. The reason for this was that the open season was most wisely postponed until October 1, when the birds were full grown and strong enough of wing to stand some sort of a show with the man with the hammerless. Shooting ‘peepers’ and half developed chickens savors about as much of true sport as does the dynamiting of fish. While I have no faith in the long continued preservation of pinnated grouse our present late open and short season will go a long ways toward keeping the birds with us a few years yet, anyway. The prairie chicken cannot be perpetuated within the environment of civilization. He is necessarily a wild creature, and unlike the quail, will not thrive close to man.
At the turn of the century, several factors were in place to prove Griswold’s contention the future of Nebraska’s prairie grouse was indeed grim. Farmers continued to turn grasslands into cropland, there were not enough game wardens to do more than make a show with an arrest now and then, and hunting regulations were set by the state legislature, men with little knowledge of conservation who were swayed more by the desires of their constituents, at least their influential constituents, than they were with the long-term prospects of the state’s wildlife resources. Hunting for the market would continue so long as enforcement of laws to stop it were inadequate, and as long as it was lucrative. Young grouse would be shot in the late summer and shipped to eastern markets in barrels labeled pickles, sauerkraut, pork sausage or dressed poultry.
Prior to 1970, regular sessions of the Nebraska Legislature were held in odd-numbered years and began on the first Tuesday in January. Consequently, game laws were set and in force for two year periods. There was a move during the 1903 legislative session to open the grouse season September 1, a month earlier than the two previous years, but it was defeated. Griswold’s chronic objection to opening the grouse season prior to October 1 – that spring-hatched grouse were not mature enough to be fit game birds, that it was too hot for man or dog to hunt in September, and that whenever the season opened market hunters would begin killing birds and putting them in cold storage two to six weeks before, and so the later the season the better – perhaps had some influence in swaying state senators in keeping the October 1 opening day. Also defeated in the 1903 legislature was a bill to increase the number of fulltime wardens from three to five.
Beginning in about 1903, a regular pattern emerged in Griswold’s columns. In the late spring and through the summer he would receive and publish frequent letters from ranchers or sportsmen in grouse country to the effect that “...the crop of chicken is undoubtedly the largest known in Nebraska fields for years, and in many localities the shooting will be little short of grand.” More often than not, once the season was underway and after it closed Griswold would report “...grouse hunting was tolerable good but not all anticipated.” Poor years were usually attributed to disadvantageous weather during the nesting and broodings seasons, and to the continued shooting of grouse before the hunting season opened. A letter from Thos. H. Bell of Newport published in the August 14, 1904 edition of the World-Herald was typical in expressing the unabated extent of market hunting: “There is already some chicken killing going on out this way, and the chances are that most of the birds outside of the hills country will be killed off in this section before the open season begins.”
When Should the Season Begin?
When the state legislature set the 1905 and 1906 hunting seasons they were extended a full month, opening the first day of September and closing at the end of November. The daily bag limit remained 25 and the possession limit 50, but the senators did make a concession in that only 10 grouse were allowed daily or in possession during September. While the bill was still being debated, Griswold launched a frontal assault against it in his February 26, 1905 column:
As I have said many times before, our great grandchildren may yet hear, but at that it is exceedingly problematical, the trilling skeape of the jacksnipe as he flashes from out a crypt of dead flags and zigzags down the boggy marsh’s shore; and from the plum copse along the creek’s bed, when the corn stalks stand yellow and sere and stripped of their precious grain, they may hear the ‘he-oh-hee’ of the quail; and over the distant lake may see the straggling lines of wild fowl, but few shall see the prairie chicken as we have seen him after our life’s span has marked its weary cycle. To be sure there were more birds in Nebraska last year than marked the whole preceding decade, but as I view it, we much have a care. There must be no summer shooting of young birds; a halt must be called before they fade and fade and disappear forever.
There were no changes in statutes addressing market hunting or the shipping of game animals. On seemingly more important matters, the legislature provided it was illegal to hunt or otherwise kill squirrels. In the eyes of the state senators, but contrary to reports from grassland regions of the state, prairie grouse were doing just fine. Griswold’s attacks on the new game laws were relentless, particularly against the September opener. He unleashed his writing skills to paint an ugly portrait of market hunting in a July 9, 1905 World-Herald column.
Did you ever see a real live old-time market hunter work? They used to go in gangs of three and four. They got out with a team and camping outfit and covered many miles a day. Through Northwestern Nebraska there were few fences and the market hunter’s outfit followed through the fields as the men shoot. One drove the team a half mile in the rear. Two men with guns spread out over a field, say 100 yards apart, and the dogs covered the ground for a mile each way. When a ‘point’ was made, the hunters closed up. Each was armed with a ‘pump’ gun, and each was a dead shot. On the first rise each man shot from three to six times. As a rule, from a bunch of a dozen birds, they would get all but two or three on the first rise. Those escaping were ‘marked down,’ and within ten minutes the whole covey was exterminated. The wagon is driven up and the dead birds packed into an ice box and then the death march proceeds. Thus the country was swept absolutely clean of birds, and that, too, long before the lawful season begun.
In columns published years later, Griswold was still reminding readers of the wicked wastefulness of market hunters, particular when they plied their trade in the too-warm-to-hunt months of July, August and September. “In my time,” he wrote, “I have seen wagon loads of dead chicken, in a rapid process of decomposition, dumped upon the open prairie to rot or furnish a banquet for coyote and crow, with as little compunction as would have marked the dumping of a load of rotting potatoes.”
Griswold’s writing increasingly reprimanded game hog sportsmen who shot grouse before the season opened, shot more grouse than they needed or could legally possess, or sold them on the black market. From his July 16, 1905 column:
As the bad example of a professing Christian is worse than that of a non-professor, so are the law-breakers and selfishness of professed sportsmen immeasurably worse than the evil deeds and unfair methods of those who make no pretension to the name which should imply respect of law and the rights of all. Too many sportsmen have a feeling that the laws are not made to restrain them, but only the market and pot-hunter, and too many are apt to measure success by their score, indeed, there are more than would be willing to confess it who feel pride in making a large bag and humiliation in brining home an empty one, and fewer than boast of it, who are content with small things well done.
Nothing is expected of the market shooter, but violation of law and complete hoggishness under cover of the law, and if he disappoints this expectation he is credited only with fear of the law or ill luck, even when his example should shine like a good deed in a naughty world, and lead more pretentious men to better practice. But the eyes of all men are upon the vaunted true sportsman, not as one above the law, except as he needs not its restraints, but as one who more religiously than all others shall abide by it and uphold it, even when its restrictions run contrary to his desire and judgment. He must be an exemplar of strict adherence to its letter, for if his practice accords not with his precept to whom shall we look for faithfulness? Necessity and desire for gain are stronger incentives to infraction of law than the gratification of the sporting instinct. How can we expect those who are impelled by these to abide by the statutes, when the sportsman sets the example of disobedience? I know the unlawful killing off of the young prairie chicken in the different parts of the state [by market hunters] is a galling provocation, but it is not excuse to enlist in the unholy cause.
The 1907 legislature cut the first half of September from the grouse season but it continued to be open through November. Bag and possession limits remained the same, including the 10-grouse-in-possession limit during September. The most significant section of the state game laws changed that session made it unlawful at “any time or season of the year” to “sell, barter, or expose or offer for sale or barter” any of the game animals included in the statutes. Market hunting, although it would continue for many more years, was finally illegal.
Although Griswold continued to rail against the September grouse-hunting season it was less frequent and more subdued in 1907 and 1908. Both years there were promising reports of especially good hatches of both sharptails and prairie chickens, and by a few weeks into the hunting season there were the inevitable reports of disappointing shooting except at a few favored localities. Griswold seemed increasingly prone to wax poetically. “No bird ever lent a greater charm to its surroundings than this handsome bird of the prairie. He has been to it more than the Bob White to cornfield, copse and stubble; more than the delicious jack to the boggy lowlands, and as much, in the eyes of many, as the chestnut hooded canvasback to the rice and Wapoto [More commonly spelled wapato, and sometimes called “duck potato,” the perennial aquatic plant now better known as arrowhead that has a fleshy root relished by some waterfowl.] lakes in the sandhills, as the mallard and teal to the marsh, or the royal old Canada to the sprawling Platte and rollicksome Mississippi,” he wrote in his August 18, 1907 column. “Without the pinnated grouse our limitless plains would be silent and dreary wastes, indeed, fit incubators for noxious weeds, whistling gophers and devastating grasshoppers only.”
Griswold reported that in some regions of the northern Sandhills ranchers had taken protection of the native grouse into their own hands by closing their land to hunters or being particularly selective who they allowed to hunt. Local newspapers customarily printed no hunting or trespassing signs on heavy paper stock at a cost of two to five cents per sign; and local papers published lists of ranchers who did not allow hunting. By all reports shooting for the market continued, law or no law, and despite policing by landowners. A letter from Norfolk sportsman J.H. Mackay appeared in the World-Herald’s September 13, 1908 edition. He wrote:
The opening of the shooting season will bring no joy to sportsmen in this vicinity, for the birds have long since been potted. It is safe to say that out of the many hundreds of prairie chickens hatched around Norfolk, not a dozen young birds remain. A gentleman, who went out several days without a gun to try his dog, found a total of five old birds, each bird in a different locality, and very wild. …Farmers are entirely responsible for the decimation of this year’s hatch of prairie chickens. Every farmer boy now has a shotgun, and bird dog, and with their opportunities to mark coveys they get into the fields at daybreak and pot the half grown birds long before the law permits killing. … Thus, when the season opens, nothing but migratory water fowl remain for those like myself to shoot at, and even then we have to run the gauntlet everywhere of farmers’ trespass signs, for the farmer is very acute to see the advantage of keeping everyone but himself from killing game. Recently a farmer in this vicinity died suddenly. Inquiry by the undertaker elicited the information that the bruises on his arm were caused by the recoil of the gun from shooting prairie chickens, the excitement and exertion of which latter probably hastened his death.
Mackay’s letter was excessively sweeping in condemning farmers, but it marked, perhaps, the beginning of a new battle over what was needed to save prairie grouse from extirpation, as the issue of market hunting had been disposed of, at least so far as state law was concerned. The rest of Mackay’s letter was a shot over the bow of the impending battle between agriculture and sport hunting. His letter continued:
In a few years there will be no prairie chickens and but few quail along the Elkhorn, which proves that the present law is worthless. The question is do we or do we not, want game birds? If do, we must have laws for their protection modeled after those of Europe. First, we must jolt into the farmers’ head that birds hatched on his land are ferae naturge [a legal term for animals not designated domesticated by law] or else we must give him a premium for protecting them and not killing them himself and find adequate means of punishing him if he destroys them illegally.
The basis of game protection must rest with the farmer, and if he is to demand compensation from the state or a fee from those who shoot legally are questions to be worked out. The next step is the licensing of all persons who desire to shoot birds. This would create a fund for propagating, policing and destroying the natural enemies of game birds. It would also give a check for wardens to hold over irresponsible game destroyers. Until something like this is done we may as well sell our guns and dogs and abandon a recreation that has made Americans physically the superior of any race or nation on earth.
Prairie Grouse and the Kinkaiders
The Kinkaid Act of 1904 was an attempt by the federal government to transfer the remaining public land of the Great Plains into private ownership. In Nebraska the bulk of it was in the 19,000-square-mile Sandhills region, the last stronghold of sharp-tailed grouse in the state, and of the greater prairie chicken on its margins. The act granted settlers 640 acres of land in 37 western Nebraska counties to settlers who would occupy the land for five years and make improvements. Between 1900 and 1920, the population of those counties increased from 136,615 to 251,830, corn production nearly doubled and wheat production increased fourfold. Where once there had mostly been large cattle ranches, increasingly there were families occupying single sections, scratching in large gardens and crops on the better land, running what livestock the land would support. The interspersion of small grain fields in Sandhills grassland benefited prairie chickens and, as they had in eastern Nebraska during the time of the Homesteaders in the 1870s and 1880s, they expanded their range. In 1900, it was estimated that prairie chickens outnumbered sharptails four to one as their range was more expansive. By the early 1950s the balance would be reversed. While the Kinkaiders created habitat for prairie chickens, it came at a price.
Chief Deputy Warden George L. Carter addressed the impact settlement of the Sandhills region had on prairie grouse in his report to the governor for the years 1907 and 1908.
In my last biennial, I reported a marked increase in prairie chicken and grouse over the previous biennial, and I am sorry that I cannot report still further increase now. During the past two seasons prairie chickens have appeared to be very plentiful on the breeding grounds in the spring, but unseasonable weather seemed to prevent good hatchings, and coveys have been very small. Again, we find the increased settlement of our sand-hill section, due to the Kinkaid homestead law, has been detrimental to these birds, because they disturb them during the nesting season, and it is reported that they kill a great many out of season and in season, sometimes from necessity, and always at a time and in a manner that we have been unable to stop them effectually, with the small force we have had to work with. It is also noticeable to those who go regularly from year to year for a few prairie chicken, that the suitable nesting places grow scarcer, because the prairie land is being pastured more closely. This condition leaves them easy prey for coyotes, skunks and other animals. I fear we are beginning to see the last of these noble birds, particularly the pinnated grouse, a condition which calls for more restrictive legislation.
In response to the declining numbers of prairie chickens and sharptails, the 1909 Legislature reduced the hunting season to October and November. The take limits remained at 25 daily and 50 in possession. Market hunters had been driven underground, but they did not miss a step, and by the time the legal hunting season opened the number of birds was much diminished. Sportsmen were almost universally dissatisfied with their lack of hunting success. It was much the same in 1910.
Everyone knew there were not enough state game wardens to pose a threat to shooting grouse before the season opened, shooting more than allowed by law during the season, or shipping birds for sale. Legislation without enforcement was no better than no game laws at all. Part of the reason there were not more game wardens was that the Game and Fish Commission was pitifully funded by appropriations from the legislature.
Deputy Fish Commissioner W.J. O’Brien requested a change in funding the Game and Fish Commission in biennial reports to the governor, and in a letter to the World-Herald published in the January 8, 1911 edition.
Our state constitution provides that all licenses and fines of every description be turned into the school fund, and the fines collected for violations of the fish and game laws are paid in to the school fund in the counties in which the violators are prosecuted. The license money, both resident and non-resident, is remitted by the county clerks to the state treasurer, and becomes a part of the annual state school apportionment. I have not got the exact figures but in the past ten years, since the present license law has been in effect, the average annual collections from resident and non-resident licenses has been about $8,000, or $80,000 for the ten years, and the commission has not been allowed to use a single dollar of this money. Nebraska, so far as I can learn, is the only state that handles its license money derived from fish and game licenses this way, and I have made it a point to collect statistics on the subject.
More State Statutes
By the time the 1911 Nebraska Legislature was called into session, public sentiment was demanding action to protect grouse and other wildlife. In response, the Metzer Game Bill, also commonly called the Universal License Law was passed. It required everyone hunting or fishing in Nebraska to purchase a license excepting “female persons” fishing and boys under the age of 18 to hunt and fish, or any one hunting or fishing on their own land. It was the first comprehensive overhaul of Nebraska fish and game laws since 1901 and made sweeping changes to the state’s game code, including a reduction of the daily grouse limit from 25 to 10, and possession limit from 50 to 10. The grouse season was again longer, though, from September 1 through November.
The total game warden force remained one chief, three deputies on the payroll only eight months of a year, and one secretary. “Special deputies” who were paid one-half of the fine imposed on successfully prosecuted cases brought to court, proved of little value. Chief Deputy Warden Henry N. Miller noted in his 1911-1912 biennial report that: “These special deputies do not feel disposed to spend their time protecting the game and fish, with only a prospect of receiving a portion of a fine imposed on some friend or neighbor; thus very little assistance is secured from this source.” Miller recommended there be three fulltime deputies and no more than six special deputies “paid a small salary for the time actually employed.”
With the chances of being caught exceedingly slim, the 10-bird limit was reported to be largely ignored. Griswold wrote in his September 15, 1912 column that killing 10 grouse a day “...ought to be no great trick for the average gunner to fulfill those requirements almost anywhere that there are any birds at all….” And then he added:
But the great drawback is that there is not one gunner in one hundred who goes chicken shooting who gives the demands of the law the least thought, and instead of quitting when they have secured their legitimate quota of ten birds, they keep on shooting them as long as one can be jumped and it is light enough to see the sights on a gun, and it makes little difference whether they have arranged for the utilization of their kill or not. If they cannot be gotten safely in, why they are thrown away and that is all there is to it. The average September chicken hunter, and I care not where he hails from, is as improvident in the matter of killing birds as the old care free hunter was in the days when there was absolutely no legal restrictions to their inroads on the birds.
And Griswold continued to foresee intensive agriculture as the real long-term threat to the future of grouse in the state:
Of all the game birds, yet fairly plentiful within the borders of the state of Nebraska, slated for an early doom, there is no question about it, the pinnated grouse, our beloved prairie chicken, comes first. While this royal bird has been on the down grade for the past twenty years, their descent from this on will be rapid; and those who prize the chicken above all game on earth can count upon the fingers of one hand the seasons that yet remain for them to enjoy its pursuit. The reason for this is as plain as it is undeniable, and the legitimate sportsman has little to do with it. The tremendous influx of homeseekers in the wild districts still adaptable to its thrift will shortly prove its almost absolute extinction. The prairie chicken is necessarily and distinctively a wild bird, and can only survive amidst its wild concomitants, the untrammeled oceans of waste prairie and uninhabitable sand hills.
And by the late-1920s, just as the building of railroads through the Sandhills and along its northern border had opened the region to hunters and provided a shipping line for market hunters, the widespread use of automobiles gave hunters of all stripe improved access to the region’s interior.
No significant changes were made to the state’s game laws by the 1913 session, although there was a proposal to close the grouse season entirely until 1915 to give the birds the opportunity to recover. Sportsmen, including Griswold, rose up in arms to defeat the proposal. “There is not a man in Nebraska or any other state, for that matter,” Griswold wrote, “who knows more of the value of these birds, than yours truly, and we are exercising no egotism when we make the assertion. Notwithstanding this knowledge, however, we fearlessly declare, considering all the conditions, that the passage of such a bill would be an incontinent outrage, and accomplish absolutely not one single scintilla of good, and we do not think that it will get by.”
And so it continued through the 1918 hunting season –10 grouse daily, 10 in possession, although the hunting season was cut to September 15 to November 15 in 1917. Griswold continued to press for the season opener to be moved back to October 1 without success. Summer reports of grouse making a comeback continued to be proven generally inaccurate by autumn wing-shooters, with the usual exceptions of good success in some localities. The future of grouse and the grouse-hunting seasons did not seem to be a high priority of the state legislature. And there was little continuity in administration from the Game and Fish Commission as the name on the chief warden’s office door changed nearly as often as the man behind the governor’s desk, and at the time governors were elected for two-year terms. Politics and game management is usually a bad mix as too often politicians can see no further than the next election, too often those elected to office have little or no understanding of wildlife management, too often they see economic prosperity more important than wise, long-term management of natural resources.
Seeming to accept that grouse were destined to shrink back to a few isolated strongholds, if not vanish from the state entirely, the Game and Fish Commission – following the lead of their predecessor, the Fish Commission that in the late-1800s saw the salvation of fishing in the state as the widespread introduction of German carp – was already searching for exotic game bird replacements for the native grouse and bobwhites, birds that could coexist with more intensive agriculture. Hungarian partridge were first stocked in 1908, and pheasants in 1911. Despite initial glowing reports, early attempts failed, as would future attempts at establishing other exotics into the 1960s. Of all exotic game bird species raised and released, only the ring-necked pheasant would eventually prosper where the native grouse could not.
World War and Grouse
The years before the United States entered World War I, during the war, and for several years after when American farmers were feeding war-ravaged Europe, were good times for agriculture. More native grasslands were plowed to grow corn and other grains. There was a short-term gain for prairie chickens in some regions as they prospered where there was a mix of grassland and cropland in the right proportions; but more likely it only shifted the range of both sharptails and prairie chickens. Farming pressed deeper into the Sandhills margins and chickens moved with it. The sharptail range shrank back deeper into choppy hills too rough to farm. What range the prairie chickens gained as cropland was introduced into former grasslands, they probably lost where they had been abundant as the scale tipped to heavily to crop production. Griswold saw the role evermore intensive farming was playing in the decline of grouse, and wrote of it in his October 21, 1917 column.
The fact that prairie chickens have been uncommonly scarce during the present season leads up to the remark that their noticeable absence is not due to the shotgun or the sportsman. It is due, however, largely, to the shotgun of the anti-season shooters, that is an indisputable fact. And yet, after all, the chicken must go. The plow is contributory quantity to his fate, and a plow is already making itself decidedly conspicuous even in our supposed most sterile sandhill regions. While agriculture, within certain limits, is a benefit to the chicken inasmuch as it furnishes a food supply, if carried beyond those limits it is a harm. The chicken needs a certain amount of wild food supply, breeding ground and shelter. If the plow in a certain locality is worked so thoroughly as to appropriate all the soil to agriculture, the balance between a food supply, breeding ground and shelter is destroyed, and the chicken has to face a sterner problem of existence in consequence, one which year by year tends to the extermination of the bird in such locality.
The Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada was signed in 1918, awarding with certainty the authority of the federal government to manage and set hunting regulations for all migratory birds, a right that had been questioned and in the courts since passage of the Migratory Bird Law in 1913. There would be no more spring waterfowl and shorebird hunting, and season lengths shrank as did limits. Perhaps the first fetal kicks of modern game management were being felt. Support to close the grouse hunting in Nebraska and allow the birds to recover was swelling.
“The shooting of prairie chickens should be stopped in eastern and southeastern Nebraska and efforts made to bring the birds back to these parts of the state,” Robert H. Wolcott and Frank H. Shoemaker wrote in Nebraska’s Game Resources and Their Conservation published by the Nebraska Conservation and Soil Survey, University of Nebraska, in 1919. “The question should also be carefully considered as to whether the shooting of prairie chickens and grouse should be permitted at all in western Nebraska, beyond the sandhills.”
Griswold seemed to be growing weary of the fight by the late-1910s and continued to cut-and-pasted parts of old columns addressing the same old problems and threats that had faced prairie grouse for two decades. But there was a sense change was coming. Perhaps sportsmen finally were able to exert enough pressure on state senators to provide greater protection for native grouse, perhaps it was because more and more of the old-timers who remembered the days of big bags no longer hunted or had passed on, or perhaps it was just the matter of not doing the right thing until circumstances are dire. Whatever the reason, the 1919 legislature cut the grouse-hunting season to one month – the last two weeks of October and first two weeks of November – and the limits remained 10 daily and 10 in possession. From 1921 through 1926, grouse hunting in Nebraska was only allowed during the month of October with the same take limits.
During the 1927 legislative session there again was a move to close the grouse-hunting season. The April 1927 issue of Outdoor Nebraska, published by the Nebraska Bureau of Game and Fish (the Nebraska Game and Fish Commission was a bureau within the Nebraska Department of Agriculture from 1919 until 1929) recounted attempts to rewrite grouse hunting laws:
No new legislation was provided for prairie chickens. The House passed a bill which would open the season during alternate years from October 1 to October 15, and cut the bag down to 5. This was amended by the Senate to open the season every year from September 16 to October 1, with the bag and possession the same as in the old law. A conference committee tried until the end of the session to get the two branches together but it was impossible. [Nebraska did not have a Unicameral until 1935.] The House refused to confer in the early dates and the Senate refused to give in on these dates. Hence there will be no new legislation for prairie chickens and the old law will stand.
Actually the “old law” was not left untouched as the daily and possession limits were both lowered to five for the 1927 hunting season. In his October 23, 1927 column, Griswold predicted there would not be a grouse season in 1928:
...you can make up your mind this is the last season you will be enabled to hunt them at all, or at least, until after they have been give a rest of several years. It is doubtful, however, if this prohibitive period will result in any material increase of the birds. And the quail, they are already denied us and have been for several years, and in bearing out my misgivings as to a similar condescension for the chicken, it is quite thoroughly known that they are no more plentiful today than they were in the times of the regular open and closed seasons.
Contrary to Griswold’s prediction, there was a grouse-hunting season in 1928, again only during the month of October, and again with a daily and bag limit of five birds. The 1928 season was no sooner closed before Griswold stated 1928 would be the last grouse-hunting season Nebraskans would see for some time. His November 4, 1928 World-Herald column, while pointing out all the reasons for the decline of grouse as he had so many times in the past, had the tone and solemnness of a eulogy.
This glorious game bird, while literally extirpated in many regions of the state where it was but a few years ago most plentiful, stands today on the eve of incontinent extinction in all localities even unto the most inaccessible of the most isolated solitudes of our western hills and prairies. ...I do not believe that it ever can be restored to anything like the numbers that marked its presence such a short time ago, if it ever can be restored at all.
As I have so frequently mentioned, the prairie chickens are necessarily a wild bird and they cannot thrive if denied the wild concomitants necessary to their thrift, and these are rapidly being denied them, but of all the inimical causes combined the ruthless killing off of the remnant left today, by shooters of the state, is the most potential and deadly.
The preservation of this beautiful bird today, means more to the picturesqueness of our far flung plains and everlasting hills than any other feathered or furred creature, and this being the only heritage we can leave posterity, the true sportsman can well forego the divine pleasure of a day in their pursuit with the gun.
The First Closed Season
Over the years, in assorted publications, there has been confusion over whether there was a grouse-hunting season in 1929 and with just cause as sources can be found suggesting there was or was not. Part of the confusion can be attributed to the fact that the old Bureau of Game and Fish within the Nebraska Department Agriculture became the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission, an independent commission, April 22, 1929. Before the 45th Session of the Nebraska Legislature adjourned on April 24, 1929 it assigned the new commission “...sole charge of Forestation, State Parks, Game and Fish and all things pertaining thereto.” The Legislature also set grouse-hunting season dates as “Sept. 16th to Oct. 15th in the year 1931 and every odd numbered year thereafter.” Nothing was specifically stated about a grouse season in 1929 or 1930, and so it could be interpreted the senators’ intent was that there be no hunting seasons for grouse in those two years, that there would be hunting seasons in those years, or that that decision was at the discretion of the new Commission.
The January 1929 issue of Outdoor Nebraska stated: “There are again a number of bills before the State Legislature which concern fish and game. Among these are the following: A bill closing the season on prairie chickens for four years.” The October 1929 issue of Outdoor Nebraska, on a page with the heading “Nebraska’s New Game and Fish Laws, 1929-1930,” in a column of open seasons, listed “Prairie Chickens and Grouse......Sept. 16 to Oct. 15th in the year 1931 and every odd numbered year thereafter,” with a bag limit of five.
In an article in the Sunday World-Herald, August 18, 1929, Howard Wolff wrote: “There is no open season in 1929 or 1930 on these birds, the next opportunity for sport being in 1931 and each odd-numbered year thereafter.” And, after-the-fact writing is probably the most reliable of all. The October 1930 issue of Outdoor Nebraska reported that the state convention of the Nebraska Division, Izaak Walton League of America, held September 12 and 13 at O’Neill, passed a resolution that, as “Prairie chicken and grouse are just getting a good start, under the closed season of the last two years, in those sections where they propagate and it is feared that opening the season in 1931 would undo all the good that has been done through the protection that has been given.” The members decided to “…ask the next legislature to extend the closed season an additional two years. This would give protection to grouse and chickens through 1931 and 1932, allowing the shooting of them again in 1933.” The July 1931 issue of Outdoor Nebraska, noted: “The Legislature changed the law slightly in regard to prairie chicken and grouse. The old law would have simply closed the season for two years (1929, 1930) and would have opened again in the fall of 1931. The Legislature closed the season indefinitely on these birds, but gave the commission authority to open same when they felt there were enough birds to justify an open season.”
So, it seems clear that the last legal grouse-hunting season in the first half of the 20th century was in 1928. Griswold died at the age of 80 on April 20, 1929. His long stated prediction of the grouse hunting season being close was finally true.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
With no legal grouse-hunting season, one factor contributing to the decline of sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens had been eliminated. Certainly there would still be birds potted by illegal hunting, but the number would be insignificant. Market hunting had essentially been brought to a halt. The variables remaining were agriculture and the weather. Nothing could be done about severe winters and disadvantageous conditions during the nesting and brooding seasons. And, nothing could, or would, be done about how the land was used. Both the weather and land-use would exact an immeasurable toll on grouse during the drought of the 1930s.
Not unexpectedly, the interest in introducing exotic game species to replace the seemingly doomed native grouse swelled. The introduction of ring-necked pheasants was proving enormously successful. By 1925, pheasants were so plentiful in Howard, Sherman, Greeley, Valley, Hall and Buffalo counties that "farmers in many instances found them a nuisance,” as they followed the rows of listed corn and pull up the sprouts. The first open hunting season was held in 1927 and new counties were added in subsequent years. The stocking of Hungarian partridge continued even though they had not adopted Nebraska as successfully as pheasants.
Frank B. O’Connell, Secretary and Warden for the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission wrote in the report to the governor for the years 1929, 1930 and 1931:
As more and more of the state of Nebraska has been developed, less and less nesting grounds for the native game birds of Nebraska have been available and for this reason very important changes in conditions have prevailed. ...Realizing that it will be impossible to retain the Bob White, Prairie Chicken and Grouse in sufficient numbers to furnish hunting to any appreciable number of citizens, game authorities have found it necessary to bring in other birds to replace the native stock….
Still, there was optimism grouse were staging a comeback in early-1930s. The April 1932 issue of Outdoor Nebraska reported the following:
Prairie Chickens and Grouse increased considerably in all of the sandhill counties during the past year and came through the winter in good shape. Many ranchers and farmers put out feed for these birds. If conditions during 1932 are as favorable as during the hatching season of 1931, it would seem that the prairie chicken and grouse would again be seen in all parts of the sandhills in goodly numbers. Some flocks were reported containing several hundred birds, many of which are young ones. Some of the game authorities who have been making a study of prairie chicken and grouse claim that these birds thrive for a certain period and are affected by disease at other times, thus making their increase and decrease appear in cycles. Those who have been studying, claim that 1931 was the beginning of a cycle of increase which should extend over a period of four or five years. If this theory is correct, it would appear that the prairie chicken and grouse in Nebraska should continue to increase for three or four years at least.
At the least, the drought of the 1930s kept Nebraska’s grouse from increasing in abundance, and perhaps even pared them back to less than present when the hunting seasons were closed. The drought stressed grouse populations both directly and indirectly. An article in a 1935 issue of the Nebraska Bird Review told of thousands of birds of all kinds being killed by dust storms. Stifling heat no doubt took its deadly toll on young birds each spring. But the most significant impact of the drought was loss of habitat. The Sandhills region fared better than other parts of the state so far as precipitation during the 1930s. Cherry County, one of the best and certainly the largest in the prairie grouse range, where the average, annual mean precipitation is 18 inches, only fell below 12 inches once during the 1930s, that in 1934, the driest and hottest year of the decade. Still, Sandhill grasslands steadily declined in quality as the drought persisted, and good grouse wintering, nesting, brooding and roosting cover was grazed down to nubbins. Ranchers struggling to hang on during the Depression took in cattle from even drier regions, and pastures were stocked far beyond their carrying capacity compounding the deteriorating range conditions. Even though the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission had the authority to open the grouse season when it deemed there were adequate numbers of birds, a hunting season was never considered during the 1930s. How the state’s prairie grouse would have responded to a decade during which they were not hunted, had there been normal precipitation, will never be known.
“At the dawn of the present century the sandhill region of Nebraska could still number its Greater Prairie Chickens by the hundreds of thousands of birds,” Glenn Viehmeyer of Stapleton wrote in July-December, 1938 The Nebraska Bird Review.
Viehmeyer distinguished himself as a horticulturist at the University of Nebraska, but he also had a passion for birds, and during the 1930s conducted his own grouse surveys across Nebraska’s grouse range. “Today Prairie chickens have disappeared over the greater part of their former range,” he continued. “In Nebraska the Greater Prairie Chicken is now confined mostly to the sandhill region and even there it has been reduced to the point where it can be numbered by dozens in areas that only a few years ago could have boasted of thousands of birds.”
Dawn of Game Management
The 1940s brought not only a return to more typical annual precipitation, it ushered in scientific game management, admittedly at an embryonic stage. Decisions regarding wildlife resources were increasingly based on scientific methods, such as surveys rather than hearsay and hunches. In the forefront of grouse study and management for the Commission was Levi L. Mohler, college educated in the sciences, but coming from common roots in Chase County. He had grown up with farming and prairie chickens. Mohler studied, surveyed and wrote extensively of Nebraska grouse during the 1940s. Immediately he homed in on the key to grouse abundance – agricultural use of the land. Sharptails, he noted, were essentially grassland birds. At the time they were, and would likely remain, restricted to the vast expanse of grassland in the Sandhills proper. Prairie chickens would prosper on the margins of the Sandhills, particular on the south and east, where grasslands were interspersed with small crop fields. “When more than one-third of a large natural grassland area becomes cultivated, the area loses its ability to support prairie chickens,” Mohler wrote in the October 1942 issue of Outdoor Nebraska.
Mohler continued by writing that three “happenings over a period of several decades” had influenced the pattern of farming and settlement of the Sandhill counties, and the abundance of grouse found in them. The influx of farmers after passage of the Kinkaid Act in 1904, according the Mohler, allowed prairie chickens to expand deeper into the Sandhills region as years before they followed the plow westward across eastern and south-central Nebraska, but for every section of new range gained, probably an equal amount was lost where they had been abundant and more grassland was turned under for farming. The second significant factor affecting land-use, and consequently prairie chickens, was the increase in grain production in the World War I years. The demand for grain led to more grasslands, mostly marginal lands for farming, to be converted to cropland.
Mohler put an unexpected twist on the third change in habitat having a profound effect on prairie chicken numbers. He described the drought of the 1930s as an “angel in disguise.” Mohler wrote:
The drought made it perilously difficult for the remaining prairie chickens to find satisfactory nesting cover, and perhaps food, during the low of the cycle, but it was a lifesaver to the prairie chicken by causing an adjustment in farming practices which restored many sandhill border counties to good chicken habitat. ... Important points in this restoration were the improved grazing and range management practices, and consequent restoration of the grass, which accompanied the increase in farm sizes. ... Barring future sweeping changes in land use, it seems likely that most of Nebraska’s prairie chicken population in the coming years will be confined to a southwest-to-north-central belt of sandhill borderland which is less than 50 miles in width in the southwest and about 100 miles wide in the north-central part.
While the future of sharp-tailed grouse in Nebraska was certainly of concern, most attention focused on the greater prairie chicken. Its rise and fall from when the Nebraska Territory’s eastern edge was being settled through the 1930s had been dependant on land-use, and so fluctuations in their abundance and distribution had been dramatic. And, it was the prairie chicken most Nebraskan’s knew best as they were found in regions more densely occupied with people than the core of the Sandhills where sharptails were better adapted to prosper.
The Return of Grouse Hunting
During the 1940s, with the return of more typical precipitation, grasslands recovered and grouse numbers increased. World War II, when agricultural production was maximized, probably slowed the recovery as marginal lands were again farmed and grasslands again vanished under the plow. In 1950, the Game, Forestation and Parks Commission decided there were enough birds to allow a short hunting season. Game managers could not have been more careful crafting a restrictive season. The three-day season was allowed only in Brown, Cherry, Keya Paha and Rock counties and that portion of Sheridan County south of the Niobrara River – counties where sharp-tailed grouse predominated. The margins of the Sandhills, and other grasslands where prairie chicken populations were still building, remained closed to hunting. The season was only three days long and allowed only two grouse in possession during any of those days; and was November 10 through 12, when even late-hatched birds were full-grown, wary, strong fliers and had begun gathering into large winter flocks difficult to approach. As if the restrictive hunting season was not enough, the weather further reduced hunter success. At Valentine, for example, the high temperature on opening day was 32 degrees and the low 3 degrees. The next two days were only slightly better with highs and lows of 36 and 18, and 33 and 23, respectively, and on both days the north wind was spitting snow. Grouse hunters who had long anticipated the return of grouse hunting were universally displease.
The Fall 1951 issue of Outdoor Nebraska attempted to explain the rational behind the previous year’s hunting season:
Through strict game management, along with a rather definite cyclic pattern, the grouse have reached a population peak which makes the taking of limited numbers advisable, both from an anticipated decrease according to past cyclic patterns and from the standpoint of easing competition for present nesting and winter cover carrying capacities. It is more appropriate for the harvesting of such a surplus by hunters instead of leaving this surplus for a now well-recognized natural mortality when such populations reach their peak. The season is purposefully short and bag limits low as this automatically confines the shooting for the most part to the local hunter. Since the sharp-tailed grouse has shown a greater increase than the chickens, the hunting is confined to the northwestern half of the state in general as in this portion the sharp-tailed is the predominate species, while the closed northeastern portion is predominately prairie chicken. This short restricted season also offers a great opportunity for commission biologists to examine birds killed in the field in order that a greater understanding may be gained in regarding these two species.
Unmoved by hunter dissatisfaction, the 1951 grouse-hunting season was identical to the previous year. The weather, though, was more salubrious for a pleasant hunt, with highs in the 60s all three days. In 1953, more Sandhill counties were open to hunting and the season was October 10 through 15, with three grouse allowed daily, but only three in possession. Nebraska’s game biologists explained that grouse populations had reached a cyclic high in 1952 and surveys showed them declining in abundance, and so there was no grouse-hunting season in 1954.
A conservative grouse-hunting season was allowed in 1955 – five days in late-October, with a bag and possession limit of two grouse. In 1956, hunters needed to know more than where counties began and ended, as open zones started being more narrowly defined by highways. Seasons during the last half of the 1950s were all in October and became cautiously more liberal. By the 1959 season, four grouse were allowed daily and eight in possession and the season was 16 days long. In 1965 the grouse season began opening in mid-September and the number of days during which grouse hunting was legal varied between 15 and 58, with a trend toward longer seasons. Spring display ground surveys became increasingly important in setting season length and limits. During the 1960s the daily limit was either two or three birds, the possession limits ranged from four to nine.
Regulations were much the same through the 1970s, with seasons from 30 to 51days long and daily bag limits of two or three grouse. It was during that decade that center pivot irrigation began proliferating across Nebraska. It had the most profound effect on land-use since the drought of the 1930s. Section after section of low, rolling Sandhills rangeland on the margins of the region – but principally on the eastern and southern borders – was plowed to grow irrigated corn. Sandsage prairie grasslands in the southwestern counties of Dundy and Chase, once good prairie chicken habitat, virtually vanished under the rotating sprinklers. The expansion of pivot irrigation accelerated through the 1980s. Conversion of sandy-soiled grasslands to cropland during those decades altered the distribution of sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens in much the same way as had the invasion of Kinkaider farmers during the first two or three decades of the century – the sharptail range shrank back from the edges of the Sandhills region and the band of prairie chicken habitat vanished from where it had been and moved deeper into the Sandhills. Just as Levi Mohler had written in the 1940s – when less than 30 to 50 percent of an area is in grassland, prairie chickens vanish. Some prairie chickens returned to the core of the Sandhills where isolated fields of corn were grown under pivots, just as they had during the days when Kinkaiders scratched in small fields of grain. And improved range management leaving more grass in pastures undoubtedly explained the isolated reappearance of prairie chickens where they had not been for decades.
During the 1980s, grouse hunting regulations stabilized, the season usually opening in mid-September. In the first three years of the 1980s, the season closed mid-November, but through the rest of the decade remained open to the end of the month. Throughout the decade, the daily limit was three grouse with a possession limit of nine. In 1982, all of Nebraska except the east and south-central was open to grouse hunting. The grouse-hunting season was extended through December in the 1990s. Beginning in 2000, limited grouse hunting has been allowed east of U.S. Highway 81, the first time since the 1920s, as prairie chickens had staged a comeback in response to establishment of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands. Only a limited number of permits were issued, and only three birds were allowed per hunter for the entire season. West of U.S. Highway 81, a daily bag limit of three and possession limit of 12 was allowed. In 2011, for the first time since 1916, the grouse season opened September 1.
The distribution of both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens in Nebraska appears to have stabilized, for the moment, at least until some land-use change again comes into play. Ironically, ring-necked pheasants that were introduced to replace native grouse because they could coexist with agriculture have been declining in abundance. Agriculture became even too intense for them. And the squirrels the Nebraska legislature was so concerned about protecting in the early-1900s, well, they are thick as ticks on a farm dog and hardly anyone hunts them.
Today, Nebraska has more greater prairie chickens than any other state and the best opportunity to hunt them in the nation. The state’s sharp-tailed grouse range is expansive and they are abundant. And yet the number of grouse hunters continues to decline. Many more grouse could be shot without jeopardizing the future of the state’s prairie grouse. Part of the explanation for a declining interest in hunting grouse, perhaps, is that Nebraska hunters today are different then they were in the past. From the 1930s through the 1960s, ring-necked pheasants were the principle upland game bird in the state. The result was a generation or two of dedicated upland bird hunters, and if you hunted pheasants you probably hunted quail and grouse. During the 1960s, deer were only beginning to return in abundance, and wild turkey had just gotten a toehold in the Pine Ridge. As pheasant numbers began to decline with changes in agriculture, and deer and turkey became evermore abundant, hunter’s tastes shifted, particularly among younger hunters. They hunted what was abundant. The dyed-in-the-wool upland bird hunters, well, they grew older and hunting grouse the way most hunters do it, forced marches up and down looming sand dunes, was just too physically demanding.
The history of grouse and grouse hunting in Nebraska is a depressing but fascinating study of how man reshaped the land to suit his purposes, and in so doing profoundly altered the variety and abundance of creatures native to it. While the Sandhills region seems destined to always be one of the last of the great grasslands on the continent, its history, and the history of grouse in Nebraska, is yet to be written. As James B. Kellogg wrote in his December 5, 1959 American Field magazine article, “Early Chicken Trails in Nebraska: “If and when the chickens and grouse are forced to make a last stand, Lord forbid, the Sandhills of Nebraska will hold their monument.”