Date: Sunday, October 18, 2015
SIDNEY, Neb. — Nebraska pheasant hunters could reap a drought dividend this fall.
Results of an annual April survey of rural mail carriers show hearty increases in the ring-necked pheasant populations in nearly every corner of the state.
The number of pheasants spotted per 100 miles was up 143 percent from last year, said Scott Taylor, wildlife administrator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Taylor presented an upland game report to commissioners meeting Thursday in Sidney.
“Sometimes the silver lining in drought is that our habitat gets beat down, creating more bare ground,” he said. “The silver lining is that when the rains return to these open places, we get a more diverse stand (of weeds and prairie flowers) that produces better habitat than we had before.”
Pheasant chicks feed on insects under the protective canopy of weeds and flowers.
By region, the estimated population increases ranged from 93 percent in the Southeast to 251 percent in the Sand Hills. Central Nebraska was up 117 percent, the Panhandle 180 percent and the Southwest 212 percent.
Northeast Nebraska was down 2 percent.
Commissioner Rex Fisher of Gretna asked Taylor why the Northeast was down, compared to big gains everywhere else.
One reason, Taylor said, was the significant loss of northeast grasslands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. The program pays landowners to not farm highly erodible and marginal soil. Many farmers have been pulling their land out of the conservation program in recent years to take advantage of high prices paid for corn, soybeans and other commodity crops.
The conservation grasslands are good habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Nebraska had 1.4 million acres enrolled in the conservation program — known as CRP — in the early 1990s. The state is down to about 800,000 acres now, with 200,000 more looming to be lost during the next four years.
Taylor said there is a glimmer of good news in the U.S. Agriculture Department’s decision to open a new general CRP signup beginning Dec. 1 with higher rental rates that may appeal to landowners.
Any new signups will help prevent additional losses but aren’t likely to result in large statewide acreage gains, Taylor said.
“We won’t get back to 1.4 million acres ... but we hope to tread water and not lose any more than we have to,” he said.
Taylor said results of a July rural mail carrier survey should give wildlife biologists a good indication of the success of the wet spring’s nesting season for pheasants. Results will be available in August.
Gains found in the April survey were the first in two years and nearly match levels last seen in 2009 and 2010.
Quail and wild turkey numbers also were up, except in the Northeast.
Taylor said the commission conducted habitat improvement projects on more than 176,000 acres of private and public land last year. Nearly 7,000 landowners controlling more than 571,000 acres received technical assistance.
“Habitat is the No. 1 issue for us,” he said.
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