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Nebraska's Habitat Stamp Program

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The Nebraska Habitat Program celebrated its 25th year in 2001. Nebraska Habitat Stamps, required for hunters and trappers, have raised more than $31.6 million, and added almost 49,000 acres to the state's public wildlife management areas. This is how it happened and what it means for people and wildlife.

A brightly colored male cardinal takes advantage of woody habitat on a cold winter day.

As our country's population has grown, the amount and quality of wildlife habitat has declined. The reasons have been many - urban encroachment, more roads, intensified farming practices - but the effects are clear. As habitat decreases, so do wildlife populations and the opportunities for people to enjoy them. Many people seldom see or hunt wildlife - their vicarious enjoyment comes from knowing there are still suitable places for wild creatures.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to combat habitat loss. Since its inception in 1901 as the Game and Fish Commission, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has recognized the need for quality habitat. But during the Commission's first 65 years, the impact of habitat loss was not fully understood. Conditions had been perfect for game birds, and hunters from near and far flocked to Nebraska to take advantage of generous bag limits and long seasons.

In the late-1960s, however, thousands of acres were returned to crop production as federal Soil Bank programs ended. Wildlife habitat disappeared at an alarming rate in the years that followed, and so did wildlife.

To address the problem, the Commission and wildlife enthusiasts from across the state sponsored the Nebraska Wildlife Habitat Conference in Lincoln in February 1975. One speaker quoted Seth Gordon, an early leader in wildlife conservation and game management, who in 1929 said:

" …Either we will put more business into conservation, or conservation will be swallowed up by business…"

Adopting this business-like attitude, conference participants explored ideas and developed recommendations for acquiring, preserving and enhancing wildlife habitats in Nebraska. Groups were given tasks such as developing strategies for upland game habitat on federal lands, improving habitat on private lands, and preserving and enhancing critical habitat for non-game species, including rare and endangered wildlife.

The conference produced many ideas, among them: Buying land for habitat and public use, providing incentives for farmers to maintain or increase habitat, increasing nesting habitats along roads, and increasing communication and coordination among agencies and groups throughout the state.

Realizing that their proposals would require substantial funding, participants suggested money-raising ideas too, such as: Requiring general hunting permits for all hunting, including big game; charging a fee for non-consumptive users of public land; and starting a statewide lottery and dedicating its profits to buying and developing land for habitat.

The Commission ultimately decided on three proposals: A modest fee increase in hunting, fishing, trapping and fur harvesting permits; legislation allowing cost sharing for habitat development on private lands; and, most important, the initiation of a wildlife habitat stamp that all hunters and trappers would be required to purchase annually and affix to their hunting permits. The stamp revenues would serve as the principal funding source for habitat restoration and management.

Kelly Highby of Sidney fly-fishes for trout at Ninemile Creek east of Minatare. Ninemile Creek is one of numerous fishing areas across the state that anglers access through wildlife management areas.

State Senator Don Dworak of Columbus, a long-time supporter of wildlife, agreed to sponsor LB 861, which contained legislation to implement the proposals. He and the Commission sought to mobilize support by holding a series of meetings across the state.

Afield and Afloat was dedicated to drumming up support for the plan: "Simply stated, wildlife is in serious trouble! Wild lands, which are absolutely essential to the survival and growth of many species of wildlife, are rapidly being gobbled up. The proposed fee increases will fund a habitat program that is one step along a difficult path. But, no successful program can be implemented without cost … cost in dollars, in effort, in ingenuity, and in desire."

Early opposition to LB861 focused on fears of land condemnation and removing the land from local tax rolls. However, the bill prohibited acquiring private land for the habitat program using the state's right of eminent domain or condemnation powers, and required a payment in lieu of taxes to the appropriate taxing entities.

After much discussion, a few amendments, and with the strong support of sportsmen and women throughout the state, the legislature passed the bill and it was signed by the governor. The Nebraska Habitat Fund was created, and wildlife proponents finally had a reliable funding source to begin making a difference in Nebraska's wildlife habitat.

Getting to Work

With the funding in place, the Commission increased its efforts to protect the state's wildlife. The Commission does this in three ways: acquiring land, preserving and establishing habitat on private lands, and improving habitat on Commission-controlled and other public lands. Each program segment receives about a third of the funds. Habitat money is stretched even further when used to match federal grants. These grants come from an excise tax on some sporting goods. On some projects, one dollar from the state habitat fund is used to match three federal dollars.

The bill that created the Nebraska Habitat Fund also required the Commission to create a habitat plan and submit it to the legislature. The Commission did so in 1977 and revised the document in 1989 and again in 2000. These plans established Commission goals for the fund.

Buying Land

The Habitat Acquisition and Conservation Plan's goal is: "To provide for the long-term protection, management and restoration of a diverse, balanced and high quality assemblage of fish, wildlife and plant resources within the state of Nebraska for the benefit of the people and the natural resources."

The Commission does this by purchasing land that can be converted into top-quality wildlife habitat and given long-term protection. Such lands are called wildlife management areas (WMAs), and are open to public use.

Most of the land the agency purchases is farmland not economically viable in its natural state. The Commission places a premium on wetlands, followed by riparian land and uplands.

The Commission prefers to acquire large tracts, or plots adjacent to existing WMAs. Large areas generally work better than small plots for wildlife and cost less to maintain.

A large number of the WMAs purchased since the stamp program began in 1977 are located in the

Hidden Marsh Wildlife Management Area in York County, along with some adjacent private land, is a habitat island in a vast landscape of fields. The Commission prefers to acquire wetlands and riparian areas that are not economically viable as farmland.
eastern half of the state, where public land is in short supply and the majority of the state's population lives. In western Nebraska, which has national wildlife refuges, national forests and state lands, land acquisition has largely been limited to filling certain habitat niches.

Land purchases made by the Commission normally require a minimum of three months. Biologists survey land offered for sale to determine if it is valuable wildlife habitat. If it is, a recommendation passes through a review process and the land is appraised. An offer is made to the seller and, if accepted, the Commission advertises its intent to purchase in area newspapers, giving notice of public hearings. Citizens are invited to voice their views on the proposed purchase. This procedure helps ensure public support for land bought with habitat stamp funds.

Not all land parcels are acquired by purchase. The Commission has received land donations and it sometimes trades property. To date, more than 6,500 acres of WMA lands have been donated. The largest parcel is almost 2,000 acres on the Loup-Custer county line, donated by the late Myrtle E. Hall.

Managing Existing Habitats

In addition to buying land, a lot of attention is given to managing and improving existing habitats. The Habitat Development Program, administered by the Commission's wildlife division, works to improve wildlife habitat on both public and private land throughout Nebraska to ensure good hunting and outdoor recreation.

Nebraska contains approximately 49.4 million acres of land and water, 97 percent of which is privately owned. Because the Commission manages less than three-tenths of one percent of the land

A pair of fox kits enjoy the morning sun outside their den. Both game and nongame species benefit from habitat improvements.
in Nebraska, its activities must involve private and other public lands to have a significant effect on wildlife populations. For example, habitat funds have been used to improve more than 10,000 acres at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Harlan County Reservoir. The fund has also been used to improve habitat on federally owned waterfowl production areas (WPAs) in the Rainwater Basin, an important stopover location for many migratory bird species.

In recent years the Commission has increased spending for existing habitat management because it costs more to restore habitat than to improve areas that have been degraded. The Commission recently improved its longstanding private land program through the development of a program called WILD Nebraska. This program encourages partnerships with landowners and a variety of organizations, sharing ideas, staff and resources to meet habitat objectives. Through a combination of material, technical and financial assistance, WILD Nebraska helps citizens, natural resources districts (NRDs), and organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Wild Turkey Federation improve habitat.

These partnerships have been important to the Commission's efforts to improve habitat, according to Kirk Nelson, assistant director for the Commission.

"Partnering has been the key to expanding our habitat programs," Nelson said. The partners and the additional money and resources they provide enable the Commission to accomplish much more than it could on its own, he said. Nationally, WILD Nebraska is one of the first to take this partnership approach and it has been used as a model in other states.

Nebraska is also a pioneer in providing incentives for managing existing habitats. While restoring altered land is important, it is also vital to provide financial incentives to landowners who have maintained land in wildlife-friendly condition. Having the money to offer these incentives is one of the best things about the habitat stamp program, according to Nelson.

"The program has a tremendous amount of versatility," he said. "It was sold on producing benefits for habitat with very little administrative cost, and that's exactly what we've been able to do."

Looking at the Numbers

For many people, judging programs by descriptions and impressions of what has been accomplished is secondary to the cold, hard numbers.

In its first 25 years, the Nebraska Habitat Fund has raised more than $60 million. Stamp sales accounted for almost $32 million, and federal reimbursement added $21.5 million. Investment interest, $4.4 million, and gifts and donations, $1.1 million, were the next two largest contributing categories, and the balance came from items such as crop and pasture income, sale of state waterfowl stamps, and sale of surplus property.

During the same period, expenditures of almost $57 million were made to acquire land and develop habitat on public and private land. In 1977, when the habitat fund was authorized, the Commission

Winter weather is hard on all wildlife and can be deadly when birds and animals are unable to find cover and food.
owned 39,725 WMA acres. Much of that total came in small parcels donated by the state department of roads after Interstate 80 was built. In the years since 1977, the Commission has acquired approximately 48,500 additional acres for WMAs, for a total of 88,000 acres statewide. Including leased land, the agency now directly manages 132,000 acres in more than 250 wildlife management areas.

During the past 10 years, habitat-stamp sales, federal reimbursements and the other revenue sources have added approximately $3.14 million a year to the fund. In recent years, the Commission has spent about $1.4 million each year to acquire land, and about $1.74 million annually on habitat improvement projects.

While the habitat fund has been relatively stable during its history, in the past two fiscal years expenditures have exceeded revenue because of increasing costs. An increase in the habitat stamp price this year will help offset increasing costs. Beginning at $7.50 in 1977, the stamp's price was raised to $10 in 1992, and to $13 last January, based on the requests of sportsmen.

Final Analysis

Thousands of hunters have taken to Nebraska fields during the past 25 years without fully realizing the contributions they had made to the state's wildlife. To many, the stamp was simply another fee they have to pay to hunt or trap; the benefits of the stamp program were not immediately apparent.

Scott Nielsen of Elkhorn is a hunter who at first wasn't sure what the stamp was for. When he turned 16 years old and had to buy the stamp, Nielsen said he didn't think much about it. Recently, however, he's started hunting more often on WMAs and has come to appreciate the habitat program. "Having these public areas to hunt has been good," said Nielsen, holding a pheasant he harvested at Branched Oak WMA. "I think there's a lot of good habitat and a good variety of cover. It's a great program, and these WMAs are especially important for kids and the younger generation, who will always have a place to hunt."

While a primary purpose of the habitat program has been to improve and purchase cover for game species, good habitat helps many species. What is beneficial for pheasants and ducks often is also helpful to other wildlife species. Biologists estimate that only about 15 percent of the animals and birds using wildlife management areas are classified as game, and the seasons for these species are open only a small part of the year.

Betsy Finch has seen the effects of the program since its beginning. As a member of the Wachiska

The weedy cover found on wildlife management areas offer animals and gamebirds protection from harsh winter weather.
Audubon Society, she took part in the 1975 wildlife habitat conference. Finch said although too much habitat is still being destroyed, the program's results have been very positive in some locations.

"In places where it's helped, the program has been tremendous," Finch said. "I would hate to think what things would be like if the program hadn't gotten started."

As the rehabilitation coordinator for Raptor Recovery Nebraska and a lifelong wildlife enthusiast, Finch appreciates the benefits the program offers for all wildlife.

"Anytime you preserve habitat, you're helping all kinds of wildlife," she said.

WMAs are open for people to enjoy. In addition to hunting and trapping, these lands are places for hiking, birdwatching, nature photography and outdoor education.

Wildlife management areas will never meet all demands for hunting and recreation, nor were they intended to, but they do relieve some hunting pressure on private lands and provide areas where all hunters - residents and non-residents alike - are welcome.

The Commission and its habitat program exist to provide land and habitat for creatures to exist and reproduce and for people to explore and enjoy nature. As evaluators of the program noted in their report to the Nebraska Legislature last year: "There is no threshold number of acres that automatically guarantees good hunting. And even if such an acreage total could be set, the Commission will never, in all likelihood, have control over that much land - it is fighting a losing battle. Habitat is disappearing as farming becomes more intensive, and the amount of land converted to habitat as a result of efforts underwritten by the fund cannot replace the number of acres thus lost."

The following proverb is taken from the introduction to the habitat plan written in 1976-1977 and it still holds true today: "The longest journey begins with but a single step." The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and wildlife lovers across the state, took those first steps when they created the Nebraska Habitat Fund. Only through quiet reflection and imagination of what might have been can we truly appreciate the hard work, foresight, and love for wildlife shown by those who brought about the habitat stamp and the habitat program it funds.

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