Ring-necked pheasants were once king in the Cornhusker state, but the population has exhibited a continued, long-term decline over the years as high-quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat – the undisturbed grass and broad-leafed plants so vital to pheasant production – continues to disappear from the Nebraska landscape.
In 2002, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Pheasants Forever, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered together to create the Focus on Pheasants (FOP) initiative, in hopes of reversing this trend. The overarching aim of the initiative is two-fold: to improve Nebraska pheasant hunter satisfaction, and to grow awareness and understanding of pheasant habitat needs among landowners, policymakers and other stakeholders.
Private and public land efforts
Since its inception, FOP efforts to improve pheasant habitat have been targeted in specific areas of the state where they are most likely to be successful. Over the years, numerous “focus areas” have been established on both public and private lands to showcase pheasant management strategies that can be extrapolated to other areas of the state.
Public lands that FOP has targeted include Branched Oak Wildlife Management Area, Sherman Reservoir Wildlife Management Area and Harlan County Reservoir. Objectives on these publicly-owned areas vary by location but typically include early-successional habitat development, invasive tree removal, increased use of prescribed fire and wildlife-friendly cropping rotations. Often, FOP funding has been used to increase the capacity of land managers to carry out these activities at a scale that is meaningful to pheasants and other upland wildlife species.
Focus areas have also been developed on private lands across the state, including Custer, Dixon, Kimball, Perkins, Sheridan and Stanton counties. More recently, FOP efforts have been undertaken in several multi-county focal areas, including the Southwest and South-Central FOP Initiatives. Developing private lands is often more difficult, depending on whether landowners participate in USDA conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Due to this, FOP offers incentives to encourage landowners to participate in CRP and to manage their land with pheasants in mind.
Increasing public hunting access within FOP areas is also a priority on private lands. Each year, biologists host numerous landowner workshops and habitat tours within FOP areas to promote conservation programs and educate landowners and USDA staff about pheasant habitat needs.
Focus on Pheasants has also supported a wide variety of research on upland gamebirds that has contributed to our knowledge of pheasant biology and habitat requirements. In recent years, Game and Parks has partnered with the University of Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to answer specific questions regarding pheasant habitat use in southwest Nebraska. Results from these studies have been used to influence federal farm policies and programs, prioritize where we conduct habitat restoration work, and to modify our existing program offerings to better meet the needs of pheasants.
Berggren Pheasant Plan
In 2016, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission unveiled a five-year plan aimed at increasing Nebraska’s pheasant population and the amount of land open to hunting in areas with abundant pheasants. The overall goal is to produce the best pheasant hunting experience for the most hunters. More information on this plan is available on the Berggren Pheasant Plan page.
Why are pheasant populations declining?
Although weather events and fluctuations in the abundance of predators have no doubt contributed to population declines, changes in agricultural land-use practices have had more impact on pheasant populations than any other set of factors. Pheasants hit a population peak in Nebraska in the 1940s and ‘50s, when diverse agricultural operations were the norm. Small fields of grain and hay crops interspersed with pasture and idle ground provided optimalconditions for pheasant populations to grow. As agricultural land-use intensified over the years, fields grew larger and more weed-free, row crops (such as corn and soybean) replaced small grains (such as wheat and sorghum) in most areas, and undisturbed, idle areas became fewer and fewer. Season-long grazing and the continued expansion of invasive trees have also imposed negative effects on our existing grasslands. Today, much of the remaining grassland habitat in Nebraska is highly fragmented and much less suitable to pheasants compared to years ago.
As habitat disappeared, pheasant numbers dwindled. In the early 1960s, more than a million pheasants were harvested annually in Nebraska; in recent years, fewer than 200,000 have been harvested annually.
For more information on Focus on Pheasants, or to speak to a biologist about programs and opportunities for landowners, email John Laux or call him at 308-928-2541.