Those words sum up current concerns about Nebraska’s pheasant population quite well. But, they are not new. They appeared in the spring 1956 issue of Outdoor Nebraska, the predecessor to NEBRASKAland Magazine. Titled “Have our pheasants reached the bottom?” the story explored the future of the popular, colorful, non-native game bird and why its populations fluctuate.
Biologist Dan Heyl, who wrote the article, predicted that the federal Soil Bank Act, then just a proposal that would be approved later that year, would be a boon to wildlife. He wrote, “It may provide the undisturbed nesting cover, probably the most critical cover condition, so badly needed by the pheasant in many areas.”
The soil bank program paid farmers to idle farmland. Many simply walked away and their fields grew flush with annual grasses and broad-leaved plants – sunflowers, foxtail,
When soil bank contracts expired in the late-1960s, the land was returned to crop production. Pheasant numbers dropped and have been up and down since. The latest increase came after the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was approved as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. Participating farmers were required to plant the fields in one or more perennial grasses, but like soil bank land, early growth was dominated by broad-leaved plants. As CRP fields aged, however, grasses took over, and the fields’ value as habitat to pheasants and other ground-nesting birds declined. Since 1994 the pheasant harvest in Nebraska has fallen steadily. So has the number of hunters.
According to a National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about 131,000 pheasant hunters, both residents and nonresidents, spent $54 million in Nebraska in 1996. The 2001 survey found that pheasant hunters had declined 24 percent to 100,000 in Nebraska and their spending had fallen 33 percent to an estimated $36 million. Cash does not flow into small towns across the state on November Saturdays as it once did.
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologists and others believe they know what can be done to reverse the decline. By disturbing non-native grasslands through disking or other means and interseeding those areas with legumes such as alfalfa or clover, the plant diversity that made land attractive to pheasants in early soil bank and CRP years can be returned and the number of birds will increase. Last year the Commission, in partnership with Pheasants Forever, the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and landowners, launched a new program – Focus on Pheasants – to show what is possible.What Pheasants Need
Pheasants are adaptable birds, but as with all living creatures, they have specific life-cycle requirements. Their primary requirement is cover – the
The best winter cover provides some food, mainly seeds, and stands up in harsh wind and snow. It offers thermal protection, blocks the wind, and allows birds to move freely through the understory.
In spring hens disperse through the countryside and build ground nests in small depressions, lining them with grass and leaves. Pheasants use whatever habitat is available for nesting cover, including CRP fields, pastures, road ditches, winter wheat, alfalfa, stubble and weedy areas. Nesting success is greater in large grassland tracts with 20 acres or more, where predators such as skunks, raccoons or coyotes are less likely to locate a pheasant nest than in a fencerow or road ditch.
Predation, run-ins with farm machinery and weather can derail nesting, but hens are persistent and will make several attempts to raise young. Even in ideal habitat, however, only two-thirds of hens will be successful in nesting. Some try and fail, and some die trying.
The successful hens lead their chicks to brood-rearing cover immediately after they hatch. Good brood-rearing cover must offer food, primarily invertebrates, which make up 90 percent of a pheasant chick’s diet during its first two to three weeks of life. In ideal
All cover must shield pheasants from hawks and other aerial predators.What We Have
After CRP began, Nebraska’s pheasant harvest rose almost annually for a time, climbing from 460,000 birds taken by 90,000 resident hunters in 1985 to 740,000 roosters taken by 96,000 hunters in 1994. But in the mid-1990s pheasant harvests declined again. By 2002, 57,000 resident hunters bagged just 267,000 roosters.
After peaking at 1.4 million acres of CRP, Nebraska lost about 300,000 acres after the program was reauthorized in 1996. But the 20 percent decline in acres does not fully
A natural succession of plant communities – as well as some human intervention – has turned CRP fields that began as wildlife-friendly blocks of diverse habitat into solid stands of grass that support a fraction of the wildlife they did in earlier years. Although not as pronounced, similar changes led to a decline in pheasant numbers during the latter soil bank years.
When cropland was enrolled in CRP, perennial grasses, including smooth brome grass, switchgrass or mixtures of several native grasses such as big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and sideoats grama, were planted. Some plantings also included a mixture of legumes. Because these perennial plants take some time to become established, a variety of annual pioneer plants, both grasses and forbs, flourished for several seasons.
“There was a very, very diverse mixture of plants showing up on those early fields,” said Clayton Stalling,a long-time Commission wildlife biologist in northeastern Nebraska. “Nature doesn’t like bare ground. You’ve got this seed bank, with all these annual weed seeds out there, and they’ll pop. You get the sunflowers, the ragweed, you name it, lambs quarters, pig weed, it was all out there.”
These early successional grasslands were a boon to pheasants. But it didn’t last. With no soil disturbance, grasses filled the open spaces and crowded out forbs. After four or five years, the wildlife habitat value of the CRP fields had peaked. In some cases, man sped the transition, using annual CRP maintenance payments to control broad-leaved plants.
Today, 80 percent of all CRP tracts in Nebraska are at least six years old. More than half have been in the program for 13 years or longer.
“If the goal was to have a good quality stand of grass, we hit the ball out of the park,” said Pete Berthelsen, director of conservation programs for Pheasants Forever in Nebraska. “If the goal is to have more pheasants and quail, it [CRP] is eight years past its prime.”
From year to year, the succession of plant communities in CRP was barely noticeable. But the sum of the changes has hit the state’s pheasant population hard. Aging CRP grasslands now provide only marginal winter cover. Solid stands of smooth brome with short stems quickly drift full of snow and offer no cover. None of the grasses provide seeds for pheasants to eat, and old growth limits the birds’ movement.
CRP offers some nesting cover, but old stands are poor brood-rearing cover. Both thatch and new growth inhibit the movement of chicks, making it difficult for them to find what little food there is. Forbs attract more insects than grass species. Where forbs are absent, hens must lead their broods to areas where food is available, often exposing them to predators. Some chicks, unable to move through the thick grass, never make it that far.What Can Be Done?
Biologists have proposed a provocative solution to the decline in the pheasant population. It is to disk the CRP.
At first, that suggestion might seem counterproductive. Winter cover is where birds congregate in the fall and it’s where hunters find them.
But relatively few acres of winter cover can support large numbers of pheasants in an average winter. With CRP, shelterbelts, fence rows, road ditches, weed patches and other habitat, Nebraska has plenty of winter cover in most regions. Still, some landowners put time and money into creating more winter cover, something Stalling said is “like having a cut on your finger and putting more Band-Aids on you leg.”
Biologists believe Nebraska needs more nesting and brood-rearing cover – the habitats that produce young birds. Pheasant studies have found that about half of the chicks hatched in the spring survive until fall. Only one in four chicks survive to the next nesting season. Pheasants simply don’t live long, even in areas where the birds are not hunted.
With quality spring nesting cover, more hen pheasants complete the generational cycle. Good brood-rearing cover assures that more chicks survive to adulthood, thus increasing the population. Berthelsen put it succinctly, “It’s all about how many birds you produce in the spring, because you can’t stockpile them.”
The Commission and Pheasants Forever have experimented with disking and interseeding for several years. The practice recycles thatch and sets back the growth of grasses, allowing pioneer plants to grow and increase diversity in the stands. Berthelsen said, “In those areas where we’ve been doing this, we’ve absolutely seen increases in the number of birds. Not only are there more birds, in many cases, there are a lot more birds.” The same is true for new CRP plantings where there are a variety of plants.
The Commission and Pheasants Forever started the Conservation Reserve Program – Management Access Program (CRP-MAP) in 1997. The program pays landowners to open their CRP to walk-in hunting and pays them more if they disk and interseed a portion of their ground each year.
Recently the Commission studied 10 eastern Nebraska CRP fields that had been disked and interseeded. For two years between May and August, researchers collected invertebrates, mostly insects, in interseeded and noninterseeded areas and measured the vegetative structure.
In stands of cool-season grasses, mostly brome, the total biomass of invertebrates was 25 to 200 percent greater in the disked and interseeded areas than in those that were not. In stands of warm-season grasses, mostly switchgrass, invertebrate biomass was 500 percent higher.
Noninterseeded tracts of brome had 350 percent more invertebrates than noninterseeded tracts of switchgrass. After disking and interseeding, the warm-season stands of switchgrass contained 20 percent more invertebrates than cool-season grasses.
The size of insects also increased following disking and interseeding, 150 percent in warm-season tracts and 125 percent in cool-season tracts. This fact is important to pheasant chicks and other wildlife because larger prey provide more food value with fewer catches. With the proper diet, chicks grow from a few ounces to two pounds in 12 to 14 weeks.
Biologists have learned that the benefits derived from disking and interseeding and how long they last depend on the depth, intensity and timing of disking. Two or three passes are required to set back aggressive grasses such as switch and brome, which is best disked in the late fall. Disking is easier and less costly when less grass residue is present. Biologists encourage producers who have hayed their CRP to take advantage of reduced cover and to disk their land. Prescribed burns can also be used to reduce plant residue, especially in thick stands of tall, warm-season grasses.
These findings have led to new guidelines for disking CRP-MAP fields. “Previously, some really turned the sod over and others didn’t,” said Scott Taylor, the Commission’s upland game program manager. Landowners must now disk to a minimum depth of four inches. Even at that depth, grasses will recover and again dominate a field within a few years, when disking will need to be repeated.Raising the Stakes
In a perfect world for pheasants, at least 10 to 15 percent of the landscape would provide nesting and brood-rearing cover. Given $88 million to rent and retire 1.4 million acres of farmland, biologists are certain they could make up the current shortfall. But such a strategy would be difficult to justify politically and financially.
With only two percent of Nebraska’s land publicly owned, biologists believe that substantial increases in pheasant populations can be achieved only by improving habitat on private land.
The private land effort of Focus on Pheasants concentrates on the 1.1 million acres of CRP in Nebraska. Commission and Pheasants Forever biologists selected six focus or demonstration areas, each covering about 36 square miles. These areas have three common characteristics: They have substantial amounts of land enrolled in CRP, their pheasant
For demonstration projects in northeastern Nebraska, biologists went door to door to enroll landowners in two focus areas. In focus areas the Commission and Pheasants Forever will pay the costs of the disking and interseeding. Depending on soil and cover types, the costs ranged from $20 to $36 per acre. Completing the required upgrades will take about three years, depending on the availability of funding.
In Dixon County, a 42-square-mile area containing 9,000 acres of CRP and nearly equal amounts of cropland and pasture was selected. Last year, the project disked and interseeded 900 acres there.
In Stanton County, biologists chose a 32-square-mile focus area that included about 8,000 acres of CRP. About 1,000 acres were disked and interseeded last year, including 100 by landowner Dale Clark.
Clark was born a few miles west of the 320-acre farm where he has lived since 1975. He has seen the high and low points of the state’s pheasant population.
In 1986 Clark enrolled most of his farm in CRP. Many others in the area enrolled land as well. Within a few years, the pheasant population exploded. “As far as I’m concerned, it was every bit as good as in the ’60s,” Clark said. “When you’d go out, the only reason you didn’t get a limit within the first hour was because you couldn’t shoot.”
But Clark said as the brome and switchgrass took over, pheasant numbers fell. “It’s just that simple.”The 11th Commandment
In many farm communities, there is an 11th commandment: Thou shall not have weeds. Biologists working on Focus on Pheasants try to overcome that line of thinking because disking and interseeding a CRP field is likely to increase its weeds.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a weed as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.”
Farmers know weeds sap soil moisture and nutrients that could be used by corn or soybeans. If given a head start, weeds can block sunlight that crops need to grow. Most weeds are easily controlled in row crops. And in farm country, controlling weeds, even those in CRP fields, is seen as the neighborly thing to do.
Landowners are not the only people who have a bias against weeds. Until recently, some local Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices required landowners to mow or spray CRP fields to control weeds. Maintenance payments included in CRP contracts to control noxious weeds were used to control all weeds.
Biologists hope to convince everyone involved that grasses and forbs, including sunflowers and foxtail, increase the value of a CRP field as wildlife habitat.
They also recognize that noxious weeds, such as leafy spurge or musk thistle, must be controlled. For that reason, the Commission does not promote disturbing CRP fields with a history of noxious weed problems, and allows spot spraying to control small infestations.
Clark had not planned to participate in Focus on Pheasants until he learned he would be allowed to control noxious weeds. He said other weeds were still a concern to him, “I didn’t have anything for habitat. I decided having pheasants around was worth having some weeds again.”
Most FSA and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices now support the pheasant program, including the need for more “weeds.” Gerald Jasmer, biologist with the state NRCS office, said overcoming the bias against weeds is an education process. “It’s going slowly, but it’s going in the right direction. We’re getting more people comfortable with weeds, but you don’t get people to switch from a green tractor to a red tractor overnight and you don’t convince them that weeds are a good thing overnight.”The Arbor Day Mentality
Cutting down trees is almost sacrilegious in Nebraska, the birthplace of Arbor Day. From 1895 to 1945, Nebraska’s official nickname was the Tree Planters State. But reducing the number of trees growing at Branched Oak Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and State Recreation Area (SRA) near Lincoln has been a major part of Focus on Pheasants.
The area was developed in the late-1960s and early-1970s. In that era, the overriding goal of wildlife managers was to create edge – the place where two habitats come together – to benefit wildlife, especially pheasants, quail and white-tailed deer. They planted row after row and mile after mile of trees, primarily eastern red cedar, Austrian and ponderosa pines, Russian olive and autumn olive. To some extent, the practice was used at other WMAs across the state, too.
Initially, the technique worked. Branched Oak produced plenty of pheasants and quail. But as the trees matured, they took more space, and biologists realized that having so many trees was not good for pheasants. The trees served as perches for hawks and other predators, and fragmented large grasslands into small ones, which are less productive for nesting pheasants.
The number and type of trees at Branched Oak also made it difficult to manage other wildlife habitats. Cedars burn easily, and their presence limited the use of prescribed burns in grasslands. This allowed cedars and other invasive trees to spread into the grasslands, reducing their value for pheasants and other ground-nesting birds.
“Essentially, it was somewhat of a good idea that kind of went bad,” said Sal Palazzolo, a Commission wildlife biologist who oversaw the first year of work at Branched Oak before taking a new job in Arizona.
Tallgrass prairie once stretched as far as the eye could see in southeastern Nebraska. Now grasslands are few. Tree cover, on the other hand, has increased 200 percent in the area during the past 20 years. When Branched Oak was selected as a public land demonstration site for Focus on Pheasants, removing trees was the first task. To date, 23 miles of planted tree rows have been removed, piled and burned by contractors and Commission staff. Hundreds of volunteer trees were also removed from grasslands, and more work is scheduled.
Eight to 10 miles of tree rows were left standing, mostly to serve as buffers between public and private land or along roads to deter road hunting. Cottonwoods, hackberries, walnuts and oaks growing in drainages and around the lake were also left, although cedars and other invasive trees were removed from the understory to improve the health of these woodlands.
To further increase the amount of pheasant nesting and brood-rearing cover, 300 of 391 acres at Branched Oak that had been used to grow crops have been planted with grasses and forbs.
Most WMAs in Nebraska include some cropland, which creates edge habitat for wildlife. In most cases, some crops are left standing to provide winter food and cover. Taylor said the cash rent received from those who farm the land is used to pay for habitat work on WMAs.
The seed mixtures planted in former crop fields and areas where trees were removed at Branched Oak are more diverse than those used on private land. Grasses were primarily native cool-season varieties, such as western wheat grass, Canada and Virginia wild rye, orchard grass and Timothy, which provide nesting cover because of their early spring growth. Native warm-season grasses, such as big and little bluestem, side-oats grama and eastern gamma grass, were used to create clumps of winter cover. Native wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan, purple and gray-headed coneflowers and Illinois bundle flower, were included with legumes in the seed mixtures.It’s Not All About Pheasants
While the focus of these intensive management techniques is pheasants, other species will benefit from the work on both public and private land.
Biologists expect to see a marked increase in the number of grassland bird species, including bobolinks and dickcissels, which benefit from diversity as much as pheasants. Surveys are underway to measure the change.
Bluebirds Across Nebraska expects the work to improve conditions for eastern bluebirds. Volunteers from the group removed invasive trees and shrubs, including cedars and sumac, from native grasslands where they had erected bluebird nest boxes.
Many of the forbs that grow in disturbed areas provide additional food and fawning areas for deer. At Branched Oak, work to clear the riparian woodland understory will benefit deer, turkeys and many other species.Will It Work?
The habitat changes and subsequent decline in pheasant numbers in Nebraska did not happen overnight. Likewise, results from Focus on Pheasants will not be immediate. Most areas that were disked and interseeded last year suffered from the drought and did not have enough plant growth to provide sufficient nesting cover this spring. Nonetheless, the
“I don’t have any doubt that we will see a substantial increase in the number of birds out there,” Palazzolo said of Branched Oak.
“It’s proven itself over and over,” Berthelsen said of the strategy.
Focus on Pheasants won’t substantially improve pheasant numbers statewide. It wasn’t designed to do so. It is a demonstration project on the local level – an example for others who want to increase pheasant populations on their land to follow.
Because of the localized approach, cool and wet weather during the nesting season could significantly affect the success of the program. “That’s the challenge of wildlife management,” Taylor said. “You try to work on the few factors you can control and hope for the best with the many you cannot. Habitat is what we’ve got the best shot at controlling.”
Interest is growing in the program. Through July, about 8,400 acres had been disked and interseeded statewide, with a large part of that done by local Pheasants Forever chapters outside the Focus on Pheasants demonstration areas. “We’re doing them with any landowner who picks up the phone and says, ‘I want to do it,’ ” Berthelsen said. Each of the state’s 57 Pheasants Forever chapters is offering incentives to landowners and many chapters are doing the work themselves.
More upgrades should follow, thanks to a management component for CRP included in the most recent farm bill. That component requires habitat improvements, including
Organizers of the One Box Pheasant Hunt have begun a project to improve CRP in an area near Broken Bow – the state’s first community-driven Focus on Pheasants effort.
Together, the Commission, Pheasants Forever, FSA, NRCS and landowners are accomplishing more than any group could do alone. “There is no other place in the country where a partnership like this is being done,” said Berthelsen.
Still, the program is costly. The Commission has spent $200,000 on seed and contracts for tree removal, disking and seeding, and another $177,000 in staff time spent on the program. Pheasants Forever has spent $65,000, not including the many hours of work by volunteers. Similar amounts will be spent this year and next.
All involved believe the effort is worthwhile. Not just to increase the number of pheasants, but also to increase the economic and social benefits the birds foster. Many families and friends have traditions built around opening day of pheasant season. And small towns across the state long for the financial boost that pheasant season once provided. Civic groups want to see long lines return to the hunter breakfasts they host as fundraisers.
But as there always have been, there are other variables in the equation.
Fifty years ago, Heyl wrote: “Farming practices are much more intensive now than they were ten, or even four years ago. Many weedy and woody fencerows have disappeared. The crops themselves are freer from weeds. Insecticides and herbicides are used more and more each year. Their direct effects on game are not well known but they are contributing to the reduction of food and cover – a basic requirement of all living things.”
If he only knew. Like then, there are no guarantees. But with Focus on Pheasants, it is likely that pheasant hunting can only get better.For more information on Focus on Pheasants or improving CRP habitat, contact Scott Taylor at (402) 471-5439 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Pete Berthelsen at (308) 754-5339 or Pete@NebraskaPF.com, or go to www.NebraskaPF.com.