Rooster tales from Northeast Nebraska, sounds similar to the way of the rooster in northeast Ohio and northwest PA. back in the mid 1980's. All heavily subsidized by our very own federal tax dollars. Farms that receive federal AG subsidies and insurance should be required to maintain a minimal amount of wildlife and natural resource conservation habitat. Removing the influence of big money in politics and government would be another good place to start.
By: Casey L. Sill Mar 12, 2018
People in small towns love to talk about the good ole days. Doesn't really matter what the topic is. Food, football, farming — it was always better back in the day. They reminisce, hoping someday the forgotten era will return.
This is especially true for hunting and the outdoors. Stories of rooster pheasants and quail by the dozen in every nook and cranny of the county have been told by many. Those who remember the days of plentiful upland game in Washington County now ask themselves where it all went. The answer to that question is complex, but it starts and ends with habitat.
“Some guy I know will come up to me and say ‘what happened to the turkeys out east of Tekamah’ and I’ll show him a picture of 10 log and brush piles that were just bulldozed up in the last month,” said Jon Reeves, a conservation officer for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission who looks after Washington County.
“That habitat is gone, it’s gone forever,” he continued. “And that’s widespread, that’s happening everywhere.”
Reeves said there are several reasons for this. The first and foremost is money.
“It’s all based on high grain prices and high land values and high taxes on the land,” he said.
When grain prices are high, area farmers look to capitalize. To do that they clear as much ground as possible in order to plant as much crop as they can. Reeves is quick to point out though that farmers are not out to destroy habitat for the sake of it and are simply trying to keep up with the market.
“They’re trying to make it work from a business perspective,” he said. “They have to do that.”
Another major factor in the decline is technology. Modern herbicides and round up ready crops have completely eliminated weeds and other volunteer plants that used to fill the understory of corn and bean fields. Scott Schmidt, a wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever in Washington County, said he sees this as a good farming practice from the perspective of the land owners, but said it’s also destroyed what used to be a micro habitat.
“In that micro habitat, you had insects, you had pheasants going into that cover to feed,” he said. “You looked at that cropland and it was still suitable habitat.”
That doesn’t exist anymore.
“It’s bare ground now,” Reeves of the Game and Parks said.
Schmidt said he’s seen first hand how these chemicals have disrupted game production. One Washington County farmer he knows purchased a small piece of land and wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. He planted it in corn but didn’t bother with herbicide.
“We were talking about how it was going and he said, ‘you wouldn’t believe all the pheasants that came out of there,’” Schmidt said.
The habitat reduction and chemical use, along with the increased size of farming operations has contributed greatly to the decline in game, something made obvious when looking at the numbers.
The Rural Mail Carriers Survey counts game species each year in Northeast Nebraska. The indices are animals observed per 100 miles. The numbers from the survey are not estimates of absolute abundance, but do a good job in estimating trends. In 1972, the year that numbers peaked, 6.74 pheasants were the average number observed over that milage. The 2017 survey tallied just .62 pheasants per 100 miles driven. Quail populations have plummeted to almost nothing in the same timeframe according to the survey. Even the turkey population, thought to be the most resilient of the species, has seen a decline in numbers in the last decade.
The decline in wild game is paralleled by the loss of suitable habitat. According to The National Agricultural Statistics Service the percentage of Washington County in pasture/native grassland has dropped from 22.64 percent to just over 13 percent in the last twenty years.
The government has long tried to mitigate this lost habitat with programs like the Conservation Reserve Plan, which pays land-owners to remove a portion of their property from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. But once again, crop prices, as well as funding from the federal farm bill, dictate how willing farmers are to enroll their land in CRP.
The current farm bill caps the number of acres allowed to be enrolled in CRP nationally at 24 million, according to Schmidt of Pheasants Forever. He said because of that, even if area farmers are interested in enrolling in the program they are sometimes denied. So unless the next farm bill changes the cap on enrollment acres or grain prices plummet, Schmidt said it’s unlikely to see farmers taking any of their land out of production in the future.
“They’re business people, they’re trying to meet demand just like any other person that does business,” Schmidt said.
CRP isn't the only program offered in the farm bill though. Ed Olson, a Washington County resident whose family has been farming in the Northwest part of the county since the 1940s, said he has taken advantage of other conservation programs. These programs pay farmers to plant native habitat on their field borders, corners and along creek beds. These strips of habitat help the farmers by providing a natural barrier between their equipment and the steep drop off of a creek bed or ditch while simultaneously providing excellent habitat for game species, especially upland birds. It also allows them to profit on land that would generally be unprofitable.
"There are so many programs out there," Olson said. "(Farmers) just need to contact their local Pheasants Forever chapter."
Olson said he can attest to the results of putting in native habitat. Not long after after planting grass, wildflowers and plum thickets on one strip of his property, the pheasants returned. Even a covey of quail made the thicket their home.
"We hadn't had quail around here since the ice storm the weekend the Huskers played Colorado in '91," he said.
Olson's doing everything he can to mitigate the decline, but he's one of the few.
"I'll be the odd duck who puts in some habitat," he said.
He's also adamant about reminding his fellow farmers they too can help wildlife while at the same time retaining their profit margins. Olson said a good friend of his who also farms was complaining recently about the lack of pheasants.
"What have you done for pheasants?" Olson asked him. "You could put in some habitat and have birds."
Olson is the exception in the county. Many land owners are unable to enroll in CRP, unaware of the programs he has taken advantage of or are simply enticed by high grain prices.
Jon Reeves is disheartened by the lack of remaining habitat and said it's unlikely to return to the way it was when he was young.
“When I was a kid we’d walk fence lines, railroad right-of-ways, wherever we could get permission,” he said. “I go back there and look at those exact same spots now and it’s solid cornfields.”
They good ole days will not return, but there is still a chance to recover some of what's been lost. With a serious effort from local farmers, outdoorsman and advocacy groups like Pheasants Forever, Reeves, Schmidt and Olson all believe a difference can be made.
Yet, that doesn't make it any easier for them or the scores of other outdoorsmen in the county to drive past what was once a thriving stand of timber, a small grassy knoll or a plum thicket and see in its place a twisted pile of brush and trees, the now black ground scarred from rubber tires and exaust fumes.
“You know it’s gone for good and it’s not going to change,” Reeves said. “That’s just one more chunk that’s gone and another piece of the puzzle that’s missing. And it’s not much fun to play with a puzzle that’s got parts missing.”