Nebraska pheasant seasons were long in those years, longest in the nation, opening in mid-October most years and running into the third week of January. Bag limits were generous, three or four a day most years, five cocks per day in central and western Nebraska in 1960. From 1965 through 1967, a hen was allowed in the daily bag in some regions of the state. And, there were pheasants, lots of pheasants.
The state's best pheasant range was a broad band from the south-central counties into the northeastern counties, but pheasants were plentiful statewide. Nonresident hunters flooded the state; most came from urban areas east of Nebraska. They traveled west only as far as needed to find good pheasant hunting, most came no farther than northeastern Nebraska.
"Emerson, Pender, Walthill, Rosalie - great places to hunt pheasants in those days," said retired Tekamah conservation officer Dick Elston. "Nonresidents flocked in there by the hundreds, parked and camped along the road, and they killed their limits of pheasant day after day. Five of us used to go up there hunting, and I don't remember many days we didn't have our limit by 9, 9:30 in the morning. M.O. Steen was the director of the game commission then, and he promoted the state's pheasant
"In Washington, Burt and Thurston counties, the three counties that I worked, there were a lot of pheasants in the heyday of the Soil Bank, and everybody knew it," Elston said. "All the small towns had hunters' breakfasts and pancake feeds. In Tekamah, you couldn't get into a place to eat in the morning. There was no point in trying until the hunters got in the field. All the motels would be full of hunters. Along the railroad track at Walthill, there might be 20 motor homes parked, nonresidents there to hunt pheasants. I can remember checking 150, 160 hunters in one morning."
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has used surveys since 1955 to gauge the harvest of small game by resident hunters. Nonresidents were not regularly included in the survey until 1998. Between 1958 and 1966, the estimated annual harvest of pheasants by Nebraska residents ranged between 1.15
In part, the decline in the harvest of pheasants reflects a decline in the number of resident hunters since 1958, which, in turn, is related to how good hunting prospects are. The number of pheasants taken per hunter each year has also declined, but not as precipitously as the total harvest. That suggests the number of casual pheasant hunters declined as pheasant numbers fell.
Dedicated pheasant hunters continued to hunt, killing about as many birds as in the good years, but they probably spent more time to bag each bird. That Nebraska has fewer pheasants now compared to the early 1960s, though, is indisputable.
Elston recalled, "I can remember in the wintertime, when there was snow on the ground up around Emerson and Pender, it was not unusual to see 40 or 50 pheasants in a clump of plum brush along a county road. I remember hunting at Albion. We would walk down into a ravine with a lot of plum brush and kick up 150 pheasants in a bunch. Unheard of now - people won't believe me. In the late '50s, when I was living in Columbus, before I was a conservation officer, I'd hunt with my brothers up around Palmer and Wolbach. Super places to hunt pheasants at the time. Clarkston was a hot spot for us. We'd go up there day after day and kill our birds. Monroe, St. Edward, Fullerton, those were all good places. There were always a lot of hunters out on opening weekend, but it was rare not to shoot our limit by noon.
"When I was an officer, I lived along the highway west of Tekamah for 18 years," said Elston, who retired in 1988. "In those days I'd look out the window in the morning on opening day and about 4 o'clock the cars would start coming by, one car after another. The last couple of years I was there, opening day was just another day. It changed that fast."
What happened to all the pheasants? The answer is not to be found in the late 1960s, when the number of pheasants and pheasant hunters both began to decline, but in the late 1940s. The places to look for the answer are the places pheasants live.
World War II was a prosperous time for American agriculture. Yields were abundant, demand was great and prices were high. The agriculture boom continued for at least 10 years following the war as Europe rebuilt. It was one of the best economic periods in the state's history. Improved seed, fertilizer and irrigation brought dramatic increases in grain production on Nebraska farms. The way farmers did business was transformed during those years.
After World War II, diversified grain, forage and livestock farms began to vanish, one by one, and were replaced with specialized row-crop farms principally growing corn and soybeans. Hog, poultry and dairy production began to fall. With horses and mules gone from the farm and the number of dairy herds declining, small oat fields and pastures were put into row crops. Farms decreased in number and increased in size. The average Nebraska farm's acreage nearly doubled between 1935 and 1965.
World War II was won with superior equipment and an industrial complex to produce it. When the war ended, Americans transferred their mastery of technology to farming and industry. Heavy earth-moving equipment and men who knew how to operate it crawled over the face of Nebraska.
Fields that were not flat enough for deep-well, gravity-flow irrigation were reshaped. From 1945 to 1965, the number of irrigated acres in the state jumped from 874,000 to 2.9 million. Large, more powerful equipment allowed fewer farmers to farm more land.
By early in the 1950s, as farmland wildlife habitat dwindled, the ring-necked pheasant population, which had exploded in numbers during the 1930s and 1940s, was on a decline. In response, the Nebraska Legislature passed an upland gamebird stamp bill to raise funds for the propagation and restoration of upland gamebirds. But game managers knew that propagation and restoration alone would not be enough. In 1954, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist Henry J. Sather prophetically wrote that biologists knew how to raise pheasants, but "that type of land management does not fit in too well with the economically sound land-use programs of our rapidly developing age of intensive farming. Intensive farming is here to stay and much of the waste areas, which in the past has been left for wildlife, will, in all probability, in the future be converted to crop-producing land."
The future looked grim for pheasants in the mid-1950s. So, what happened to produce the bountiful pheasant crops of the late 1950s and early 1960s?
As farmers pressed more land into production, acquired modern equipment and technology, and the demand for grain from Europe dwindled, huge grain surpluses developed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture responded with a land-retirement policy to cut production and prop up prices. The Agricultural Act of 1956 authorized five- and 10-year land retirement contracts with farmers in a
"Those Soil Bank fields were big fields," Elston said. "In Thurston County, on opening day, I've seen five different bunches of hunters in the same field in the same day. A bunch would go through a field and kill four or five birds. I'd come back in two hours and another bunch of hunters would be going through the same field and they'd kick up two or three and kill 'em. You'd see birds flying into a field while guys were hunting it. And a lot of birds didn't get up."
At the Soil Bank's peak in the early 1960s, 28.7 million acres were retired nationally - 876,000 acres in Nebraska. While less than two percent of the state's total land area, the Soil Bank acreage was significant in the state's primary pheasant range, and it provided winter and nesting cover for the birds that was often lacking on land being farmed. Nebraska pheasant populations mushroomed - roadside counts increased 77 percent between 1956 and 1958. The pheasant season grew from 30 days in 1957 to 93 days in 1963 through 1966.
From 1960 until 1992, Bob Downing was district law enforcement supervisor for the Commission in northeastern Nebraska. He moved to Norfolk when Soil Bank was coming on as a pheasant factory.
"We had severe winters in '59 and '60," Downing recalled, "and that probably kept the pheasant numbers down during the first years of Soil Bank. From '60 to '65, the best pheasant hunting up here was southwest of Madison County, down in Boone and Greeley counties. Cedar, Dixon, Wayne and
By 1966 the first acres enrolled in Soil Bank started coming out of the program. Most contracts expired by 1969. All that the program had created for pheasants and other wildlife began to vanish under the plow. And, farming practices continued to intensify. Pheasants were hit with a double whammy: The Soil Bank fields were gone and farmland not in the retirement program had changed dramatically during the Soil Bank's 10 years.
"There were four farm places in a section, one on each quarter, when I started hunting in the late 1940s," recalled Lee Rupp, a Monroe pheasant hunter and landowner. "By the late 1970s, in Platte County, I was surprised if I found one or two on a section. In Greeley County there might only be a dozen farmsteads in a township, in 36 sections of land. The vacant farmsteads that used to be good hunting were dozed out."
"This country was full of vacant houses, just full of 'em," Elston said of the area around Tekamah in Burt County, "When I came up here in the early 1960s, farms were really getting bigger. There would be sunflowers and tumbleweeds clear up over the windows of the houses, and they'd cover a half a block area. You could go to an old vacant house anytime and kick up birds. The birds loved it there, they liked to sit on the sunny side in the winter and dust and loaf in the middle of the day. Over the years the house was knocked down and burned, and the basement filled in. Now there is corn there."
Rupp said, "Beyond any doubt the biggest single factor that changed the face of the landscape around here was center-pivot irrigation. The shelterbelts, the vacant places, the brushy draws, all went under the blade or were burned off to make room for that pivot to go around. The fence rows are
"Before center-pivot irrigation all that hill country was dryland crops," Rupp said. "There was no irrigation whatsoever. Cornfields were scratched in on the bottoms and on land with low relief. Hillsides and rough land were in pasture or alfalfa. Farming was more diversified, small fields of different crops, and there were brushy or weedy areas on most farms. It was perfect for pheasants."
The intensification of agriculture during the past 50 years, and the shift from diversified farms to row-crop farms, is evident in Madison County in the Norfork area, once one of the state's best pheasant hunting regions. Between 1957 and 1997, the acreage of corn nearly doubled and soybean acreage increased from 2,500 acres to 98,000 acres. Sorghum acreage fell from 32,600 acres to 1,000 acres, wheat from 2,700 acres to none, oats decreased from 59,500 acres to 1,400 acres and the acreage of wild hay harvested fell by half.
Overall, the acreage planted to row crops more than doubled. The rolling landscape of Madison County was perfectly suited for center-pivot irrigation. To accommodate irrigation, fields were contoured, brushy ravines filled, fencelines with thickets dozed, and shelterbelts pushed into piles and burned.
Pheasant hunters from the late 1950s would not recognize the Madison County landscape south and west of Norfolk today. And they would find far fewer pheasants.
Results of the Spring Rural Mail Carriers Survey in Madison County document the decline. In the seven-year period from 1960 through 1966, the best of the Soil Bank years, an average of 12.5 pheasants were counted on roads and roadsides per 100 miles. By the early 1980s, the count had fallen to 2.2 pheasants per 100 miles.
That same decline was echoed by pheasant hunters tromping Madison County fields. "Take away the habitat," Rupp said, "and you take away the pheasants."
Elston recalled, "In the early '60s my dad came over and rode with me a week or two before the season. In seven miles we saw 152 pheasants. All by set-aside fields, bunches of 17, 20, 8, 6 to a mile. You never see that now. I watched it on a weekly basis. I'd go out northeast of Tekamah and here would be a guy out with a bulldozer grubbing up a whole mile of plum thickets. Three days later, he'd be two miles north grubbing up another place. The next year they would take the fence out and plow that up, just to get another row or two of corn all the way around the section. That's the way the cover was depleted, and that's the way the birds went. Pretty soon, there wasn't any cover anymore. It's just bleak."
Downing said, "Even when we had the Soil Bank, pheasants used shelterbelts for winter protection. And, there were a few pheasants produced along shelterbelts, if there was grass or weeds, even after the Soil Bank was gone. We shot a tremendous number of quail, and occasionally we'd take a rooster along those shelterbelts. Madison County, Stanton County, Pierce County, they all had a lot of
Not only had pheasant habitat been lost in all the expected places, it vanished in cornfields as well.
"Go back and read old hunting articles from the '40s, '50s and early '60s," Rupp said. "They wrote about hunting cornfields before they had been picked. The timing of the corn harvest has gotten earlier and earlier. In the old days, if a farmer had his picking done by Thanksgiving it was a good year. Now, they're 90 percent done by the middle of October. Corn farmers plant earlier now, and they've got 120-day corn, 123-day corn, 131-day corn. They've got it right down to the gnat's eyebrow on how long it is going to take to reach maturity.
"And look at how cornfields have changed in the last 40 years. I can remember big parties of hunters fanning out across picked cornfields, posting hunters at the end, and killing pheasants. You couldn't do that today. Now they've got 30-inch rows instead of 40-inch rows, and the rows are cleaner. Look at the cornfields today. First, you wouldn't find a pheasant in a picked cornfield, and if you did, you couldn't get within a half mile of it. You could see a mouse run from one end of the field to the other. The herbicides we have now to control weeds are nothing short of miraculous. Farmers think that is great, and I suppose it is, but it's not great for pheasants."
Dixon County farmer, seed dealer and pheasant hunter Larry Koester remembers hunting cornfields in the 1940s.
"There was really no fall work done back then. So all the cover was there, and the grain fields were maybe 40-acre fields. I think my Dad always had 40 acres of corn and 40 acres of oats, or something like that. Maybe 50 or 60 acres, and it was usually strips, so you never had too big a field of anything. We fed everything we raised. I don't remember my Dad ever selling anything. We had bins, we had a corn crib, and ground ear corn and we had oats that were ground to feed horses, cows and chickens. We all had chickens, we had hogs, and always so many milk cows, beef cattle and horses. There was always cover out there in the winter. But we never worked fields in the fall, we never had time.
"We'd hunt cornfields about as much as anything," Koester continued. "The corn wasn't nearly as tall as it is now, and there was grass and weeds growing in it, and we could get birds up in the cornfields. Even during Soil Bank we hunted the cornfields. The big push in agricultural chemicals came in the '70s, and as competitive as farming is today, you need to use them to stay in business. Corn is bred now to put everything into the ear for yield, and any weeds or grass in that cornfield takes fertilizer and moisture. If you got the fertilizer and moisture going to corn and not weeds, you're going to get more corn. That's why it pays."
Both Rupp and Koester agreed modern combines leave less grain in fields than old corn pickers. And, combines that sheer stalks off a few inches above the ground and grind them leave less cover in the fields for pheasants. Although few farmers plow fields in fall, as some once did, disking or chisel-plowing leaves essentially nothing in a cornfield for pheasants or other wildlife. Even no-till farming, while reducing soil erosion, leaves little cover for pheasants. Farmers who hunt lament what changing farming practices have meant to pheasants and other wildlife, but understand the farmer's economic circumstances.
"A poor farmer was the biggest asset a pheasant had," Koester said. "The more time he spent playing pinochle in town, the more sunflowers, foxtail and pheasants he had on his farm. But a farmer like that just can't survive in today's economy. Land prices are higher, machinery prices are higher,all the costs of production are higher, so you need a lot of acres, because the profit per acre is not what it was in the past. And the land, the land costs 10 times what it was when I started farming. I know how it has changed here. I've never lived more than three miles from where I was born.
"Pheasant hunting was pretty good up to the mid-'70s and, then, everyone started farming from fence row-to-fence row. I'll never forget, during the late 1970s and into the early '80s, the pheasant numbers were just about nil. In 1983 we had a bad winter, a lot of snow. The windchill factor was 60-below some days. There were six hens and one rooster that stayed at our place, in the plum brush east of the house. I fed them all winter. I don't remember seeing another bird in that whole section. I never even hunted for two years, or three. Never went out, because we just didn't have any birds."
The years from the late 1960s into the early 1980s were a gloomy time for farmland wildlife. Fencelines, roadside cover, ravines, vacant farmsteads and shelterbelts vanished. Row-crop fields grew squeaky clean.
In those years, American agriculture was on a wild economic ride. In 1971 total crop values in Nebraska exceeded $1 billion for the first time, and climbed to $3.5 billion annually by the end of the decade. But, in the 1970s, rapid inflation and spiraling fuel and fertilizer prices hit farmers. Many farmers borrowed money at high interest rates to sustain and expand their operations. "Get big or get out" was the buzz phrase in agriculture.
A huge purchase of grain by the Soviet Union in 1972 prompted Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz to publicly speculate that American farmers would never again be able to overproduce for the expanding world market. While large overseas markets did develop, so did worldwide production, and grain prices plummeted.
In the 1980s, history repeated itself. As in the 1950s, the federal government's solution to chronically low grain prices - often too low to cover production costs - was a land-retirement program to cut production.
Like Soil Bank, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in the 1985 farm bill, authorized 10- and 15-year contracts to retire cropland. Few 15-year contracts were written. CRP had two objectives - control over grain surpluses and land conservation. Pheasant hunters old enough to recall the gravy days of Soil Bank hoped the new long-term, land-retirement program would be equally effective.
Bob Downing hadn't had a hunting dog since 1975. "It didn't make any sense if you were a pheasant hunter," he said. In 1992, as pheasants began to come back, he bought a Labrador retriever. Downing didn't expect it to be as good as it was in the early 1960s, but it was good enough - a heck of a lot better than it had been in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Pheasant numbers did increase, especially in some northeastern counties where enrollment in the program was high. The estimated statewide pheasant harvest increased from 467,000 in 1985, the year before the first CRP plantings, to 653,000 in 1990. The pheasant harvest increased significantly in counties with high CRP participation, it remained static or continued its decline in counties where CRP was not popular.
Comparing the six-year period before CRP with the first six years of the program, the Spring Rural Mail Carrier Surveys found that the number of pheasants doubled, but that was still far below the early 1960s. CRP only could do so much to bring back pheasants.
Overall, the response of wildlife to the new CRP was disappointing, even though 1.4 million acres were enrolled in the program, nearly twice the acreage of the Soil Bank program. While many CRP fields looked like excellent habitat, they lacked the plant cover diversity of Soil Bank fields - diversity needed for pheasants and other wildlife to achieve high densities. Had the dense stands of grass in CRP fields been periodically disturbed by disking, weedy annuals like sunflowers and foxtail would have created the plant diversity gamebirds require. And, unlike in the late-1950s and early-1960s, an array of herbicides was available in the 1980s. Although weed control was not required by CRP guidelines in most regions, local program administrators made it clear that weeds should be controlled. Hunters quickly learned the best years of CRP were the first two or three when weedy plants still dominated the grass plantings.
Pheasant hunters who had known both the Soil Bank and CRP years noticed the difference.
"Just to give you an idea of how good the pheasant hunting was in the early 1960s, on opening weekend, we checked a lot of people with limits," Downing said. "I can remember hunters asking me to take their photograph with their birds. I remember checking 11 hunters with 44 roosters on an
Because of concern about federal budget deficits, farm bills in the mid-1990s lacked the broad support earlier farm bills enjoyed. To pass the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill, a coalition of diverse interests formed - farmers who wanted to end complex regulations, members of Congress who wanted to reduce farm subsidies, and a strong conservation lobby that wanted more in return for its tax dollars.
The resulting bill emphasized wildlife enhancement practices on retired land. Ten- and 15-year land retirement programs, which included cost-sharing provisions to establish cover to protect the soil and water, and provide wildlife habitat, were mandated. Permanent woody and herbaceous cover was encouraged, as were filter strips, riparian corridors, field border plantings and grass waterways. Disking grass plantings to create plant diversity and improve wildlife habitat were written into the program. Other financial incentives encouraged landowners to add legumes and food plots to CRP land and to open it to public hunting.
But, pheasants did not return to their former abundance statewide in the 1990s. Some counties, especially in northeastern Nebraska, where CRP participation was high, showed remarkable increases in the number of pheasants and the number harvested. But even there, they were but a faint shadow of the glory days hunters had known in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Why didn't the land-retirement programs of the late 1980s and 1990s produce the numbers of pheasants that Soil Bank did in the late 1950s and early 1960s? There are several explanations, but the most obvious is that the farm landscape had changed.
Some CRP fields provided excellent habitat, but they were islands in a sea of manicured cropland nearly devoid of woody thickets, vacant farmsteads, weedy and brushy fencelines and ravines, and small spots of cover that were not worth the effort to farm in the 1950s. In some regions CRP was the only pheasant habitat.
"How intensively an area is farmed, and consequently how much habitat there is for wildlife, is a reflection of that community of people," Rupp said. "There are places in Platte County that are as intensively farmed an any place on the planet Earth, and I'm including the San Joaquin Valley in California. I don't think those farmers would put land in the CRP if they were paid $500 an acre. They would view that grass and a few pheasants flying around in it as a waste of a god-given resource, that the land is too good to not raise crops.
"You can drive through a small town and pretty much guess the personality of the farm community," Rupp said. "If there are a bunch of battered old pickups in front of the bar and post office, they are pheasant farmers. A small town in the next county will have brand-new four-wheel drives sitting in front of the bank, and you can bet there is a big John Deere back on their farm and no pheasants.
"You don't see much shiny green machinery in good pheasant country. If you want to find pheasants, look for the bedraggled, old Allis-Chalmers. I could take you to probably two townships here where there isn't a CRP acre, and hence not an acre of wildlife cover. I'm not saying whether that is good or bad, it's just a fact of life, and if you want to hunt you've got to go somewhere else. CRP isn't perfect, but it's the only reason we have any pheasants at all."
Rupp added, "I don't mean to be critical of farmers. I grew up on a farm and I own farmland now, but it depresses me when I go through areas that are farmed so intensively. They are good people, but they think differently than I do. They are naturally concerned with economic survival, but they are
Koester remains optimistic about the future of pheasants and pheasant hunters in northeastern Nebraska.
"My dad was probably the first farmer to put in a waterway in this country, and the first one to put in terraces," Koester said. "He always was a conservationist. I was raised that way. Some farmers are not raised that way. They were raised to farm and get everything out of it possible. I don't know if you can change them, but you can change the next generation.
"In the late '70s and the early '80s, I thought it was all over for pheasants in this country. But look at what we've got now. We've had as many as 100 to 120 roosters shot off our 640 acres. We have had 10 hunters all shoot their limits by 10 o'clock in the morning on opening day. CRP can't do it alone, but it's made a big difference. And it can be better.
"That's why I belong to Pheasants Forever. They believe that hunters can work with landowners to keep the habitat we've got now, and make it better by doing things like adding food plots. But hunters have got to understand the position farmers are in. They are not farming their land for recreation, they've got to make a profit. If hunters want pheasants and other wildlife on private land they are going to have to provide some incentives. CRP is one way, and hunters should get the most out of their tax money on those lands by demanding they are managed for wildlife as well as the program's other objectives. In this day and age, in a farm state like Nebraska, if you care about wildlife and its future, you better pay attention to what is happening with farm programs in Washington. Ultimately, that is where the future of wildlife will be decided in farm country."