TEKAMAH, Neb. — Nebraska is going all in for pheasants.
State Game and Parks commissioners approved the concept of an ambitious five-year plan Thursday designed to provide the best hunting experiences possible for the largest number of people — and simultaneously goose Nebraska's rural economy.
Goals for the so-called Nebraska Mega Plan include increasing pheasant abundance, improving hunter access to pheasant fields, boosting the pool of potential pheasant hunters and managing hunter expectations appropriately.
"The long-term goal is to sustain pheasants as part of the good life in Nebraska," said Commissioner Dick Bell of Omaha. "We have the framework to go forward."
The commission will continue to try to improve pheasant habitat and hunting statewide, but the plan narrows the focus on achieving specific improvements in eight areas of the state where research and experience suggest efforts will be most effective.
Proposed improvements consist of habitat enhancements on more than 805,000 acres of land and 122,000 acres of increased hunting access.
The $5.9 million estimated annual price tag — $26.4 million over five years — will require substantial public-private partnerships.
That's more than the commission is spending now, said Scott Taylor of Lincoln, the agency's wildlife division manager.
The commission is committed to spending more and will tap others who care about pheasants — including longtime partners Pheasants Forever and the U.S. Agriculture Department — to increase their investments.
"We know it's ambitious, but to get to where we need to go, we need to set a goal," Taylor said.
Bell said local communities and the Legislature will need to participate.
"We're not going into towns with a bunch of money and say we'll have pheasants here and we'll have pheasants here," he said.
There was a time when pheasant hunting in Nebraska meant more than 140,000 men, women and children bagging about 1.4 million pheasants during a season. That's the way it was in the mid-1960s and earlier.
Now about 29,000 hunters bring home around 131,000 birds.
Hunting in general has an $848 million economic impact in Nebraska, the commission says. Pheasant hunting represents a fraction of that total.
No one expects to bring back the mid-20th century to Nebraska, but the new initiative is taking a shot at delivering the best possible hunting on the 21st-century landscape.
Ring-necked pheasants were introduced in Nebraska around 1900. The colorful game bird became one of the state's most recognizable and culturally important wildlife species.
Starting in the 1920s, communities across rural Nebraska enjoyed the economic and social activity associated with pheasant hunting. Perhaps no other event has intermingled rural and urban Nebraskans together as effectively as the opening day of pheasant season.
The cultural traditions surrounding pheasant hunting were forged during the peak of pheasant abundance in the state.
Populations apparently reached their zenith in the late 1940s, and have generally declined since. Pheasants harvested and hunter numbers have followed this same trend, and the benefits to rural communities generated by pheasant hunting have also been greatly reduced, the commission says.
Although weather events and fluctuations in the distribution and abundance of predators influenced this downward trend in pheasant numbers, there is little doubt that changes in land use practices have had more impact on pheasant populations than any other set of factors, Taylor said.
During the period of peak pheasant abundance in the 1940s and 1950s, diverse agricultural operations were the norm. Farms often consisting of small fields of grain and hay crops interspersed with pasture and idle ground.
This production system generated — by happy accident — nearly perfect conditions for sustaining high pheasant densities, providing good nesting, brood-rearing, escape and winter habitats within close proximity.
Today, only parts of southwest and south-central Nebraska and the Panhandle approximate these habitat configurations.
As agricultural technology advanced and markets became more globalized, land uses within the pheasant range became more efficient and less diverse. Field sizes grew, idle land became scarce and weed control became more effective. Wheat, which once provided important pheasant nesting habitat across Nebraska's farmlands, has become much less common.
As a result, pheasants are no longer a reliable by-product of cropland agriculture, and their numbers have predictably declined, Taylor said.
If pheasants are to become abundant again, active management will be necessary, according to the commission's plan.
The plan focuses habitat and hunter access efforts in eight defined regions that include 17 wildlife management areas.
Activities range from big-picture strategies to specific tactics. Among the dozens listed:
Use releases of pen-raised pheasants to improve youth and family hunting opportunities in places where production of wild pheasants is not practical.
Continue releasing roosters on 10 wildlife management areas prior to the youth pheasant season and Thanksgiving.
Continue outdoor skills programs for youth.
Provide a factual, timely annual forecast to hunters about predicted hunting conditions that highlights the best regions in language that neither undersells nor oversells what the average hunter is likely to experience.
Continue to provide a long open season (last Saturday in October through the end of January, plus youth season) and a three-bird daily bag limit.
Work with University of Nebraska-Lincoln experts to develop a research proposal to measure the genetic diversity and structure of pheasants in the state to identify their potential links with population performance.
Continue to provide liberal fur harvest seasons and allowances for the take of nuisance predators.
Assess the best ways to engage farmer-trusted organizations such as UNL Extension, cooperatives, crop consultants and others in sharing the direct and indirect values of wildlife habitat in protecting soil and water.
Discontinue the planting of Canada wild rye because of its potential to cause nocardia and similar infections in dogs.
This isn't the first time the commission has attempted to bring pheasants back to the landscape.
In 2002, a Focus on Pheasants initiative improved habitat on more than 45,000 acres of public and private land. It set the stage for the latest plan.
The commission met at Pheasant Bonanza Hunt Club & Kennel. The final plan is expected to be approved at the commission meeting in Chadron in April.
The plan is dedicated to the late Lynn Berggren of Broken Bow, a commissioner who died last week. Commissioners said Berggren's passion, energy and enthusiasm for pheasants and pheasant hunting inspired those who helped create the plan over the past year.
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STATE OF PHEASANT HUNTING
29,045 resident and non-resident hunters
131,423 pheasants harvested
$18.9 million economic impact (2006)
47,180 resident and non-resident hunters
158,099 pheasants harvested
$28.3 million economic impact (2014)
South Dakota (2014)
143,340 resident and non-resident hunters
1.23 million pheasants harvested
$154.5 million spent by resident and non-resident hunters.
Sources: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; Iowa Department of Natural Resources; South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.