A Good Rooster Is Hard to Find: What’s become of Nebraska’s most colorful immigrant?

Ben Gotschall (’02)

Rooster with missing rooster at side

As the sun peeks over the rim of cropland to the east, a cool November fog filters the orange light on dew-covered grass. From this hilltop in northern Lancaster County, the capitol’s dome is just visible above the mist to the southeast. To the west I can see the silver water of Branched Oak Lake. I cradle my shotgun in the crook of my arm and step through the prairie tangle. Dew soaks my pant-legs as my boots crunch the crisp stems. I scan the area to my left and right, about 30 yards on either side of me between my brother and my cousin, my hunting partners today. We walk from one end of the pasture to the other, a quarter mile, listening for the telltale ratchet of a bolting rooster pheasant to break the morning silence.

Nothing.

I remember the rush of colored feathers bursting into flight and draw a bead in my mind, my finger squeezing the trigger and the shotgun’s kick firm only in my imagination. We walk the pasture again, then try more prime spots, but we see no ring-necks. The fog burns off and the dew dries. We give up. Though it’s a beautiful day, I’m disappointed. I’ve had mornings of poor shooting when I didn’t bag a rooster, but never a day when I didn’t even see one.

We head to the Ding-a-Ling Bar & Grill in Raymond for a burger and a beer, and I speak to a couple others in blaze orange whose luck was no better. It’s clear that fewer pheasants and fewer hunters equal fewer dollars in Raymond. “This bar used to be full of hunters coming in for lunch after opening morning,” one of them tells me. “Now, the place is almost empty.”

Many Nebraska pheasant hunters experienced the 2010 season in much the same way—if they bothered hunting at all. According to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, “740,000 roosters [were] taken by 96,000 hunters in 1994, [but] by 2002, 57,000 resident hunters bagged just 267,000 roosters.” Almost 10 years later, Nebraska’s pheasant population is as low as it’s been in half a century. And it could fall still more.

Why?

The common answer is that, as we’ve continued to convert habitat for other uses, we’ve changed the diversity of the landscape. Plant and animal diversity is key to sustaining many game animals, including the ring-necked pheasant. Limiting their habitat to narrow hedgerows between cornfields makes a coyote’s work easy. Also of little habitat value is unmanaged Cropland Reserve Program (CRP) ground that has come to be covered in little more than brome. Brome offers the pheasant no food. And when it drifts over with snow, the birds find little shelter against the cold or cover from predators.

Pheasant rooster flyingScattered shrubs, wooded draws, legumes, even weeds and heaps of branches from fallen trees and brush provide pheasants with the cover, feed and nesting areas they need. But recent high corn prices have prompted Nebraska farmers to devote a record 10 million acres to corn in 2011—an increase of 850,000 acres over 2010. This expansion included marginal land and CRP acres that had provided wildlife habitat in the past.

Those CRP acres that haven’t been converted to cropland may also be losing their effectiveness. When tracts of land lie undisturbed by animals or cultivation (or the fires and buffalo grazing that predated Nebraska agriculture as we know it today), they tend to revert to one or two perennial grasses. Lost acres and lessening diversity are at the root of many game species’ decline.

The significance of the pheasant’s decline is an open question. To some, the pheasant represents a vital part of Nebraska culture. For Jerod Olson, a former Wesleyan Advantage student and avid hunter and outdoorsman, Nebraska’s wildlife and rural places provide something priceless. “How many people live in a city and never get to see a sunrise?” he said. “To see ducks landing on a lake, or pheasants and deer browsing on a hillside is worth more than money.” Yet it takes money, and considerable work, to restore such scenes.

However familiar they once were here, the pheasant’s place in even the most pastoral Nebraska landscape is something a little short of natural. Associate Professor of Biology Jerry Bricker pointed to the pheasant’s non-native status (they were imported from Asia in the 19th century) and argued that conservation efforts are better spent on native birds like the endangered prairie chicken or sharp-tailed grouse. “Native species are much more romantic and deserving of protection . . . than an alien invader from the Old World,” he said.

But today’s efforts to preserve the “invader” may also be in the best interests of the native species the pheasant once usurped. Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist Brian Teeter said, “Even though they’re non-native, pheasants require habitat very similar to that needed by native species which are also in decline, such as bobwhite quail.” Even when their focus is on pheasants, Teeter said, conservationists inevitably deal with native species as well.

Still, pinpointing what influences pheasant populations isn’t easy. “As with other alien species, determining why population growth and expansion of home range occurs is very difficult,” Bricker said. “Over time many invasive species settle down to lower population sizes and may even see their home range shrink as other species adjust their niches. . . . What factors lead to this new stasis are very difficult, if not impossible, to determine.”

While Bricker admitted his “heart really isn’t into” pheasant preservation, he recognized that going back to a pre-pheasant Nebraska simply isn’t possible. He said, “The reality is that the Nebraska grasslands of pre-settlement days are extinct. Most of the grass species covering the state, especially in eastern Nebraska, are non-native.”

Ironically, in today’s Nebraska, a non-native culture (European agrarianism) is using a non-native plant (smooth brome grass) to attempt to sustain the non-native pheasant. And what used to be a prairie rich with varied flora and fauna has become dominated by a monoculture of cropland and urban development.

Like the CRP ground I’ve hunted near Raymond, much of Lancaster County’s last remaining pheasant habitat is sandwiched between growing Lincoln sprawl and the corn and soybean fields spreading out in all other directions. But just as landowners’ choices have sculpted the landscape into what it is today, the same landowners can reshape it into something more diverse.

On Jerod and Sara (’95) Olson’s 80 acres east of Garland, just southwest of Branched Oak Lake, the Olsons have done much to promote wildlife diversity. They’ve done controlled burns; removed invasive trees; disked the ground; interseeded wildflowers; planted food plots of sorghum, beans and corn; introduced multiple varieties of shrubs and created a firebreak of clovers and alfalfa around the property’s perimeter.

Jerod’s passion for hunting and wildlife preservation helped Sara to develop her own appreciation for their work. Sara doesn’t measure success in daily limits of game birds bagged. As she put it, “The most rewarding part of this is knowing that wildlife will benefit from our actions. Our kids will enjoy the outdoors and learn many valuable lessons from spending time on the land.”

2 pheasant roosters with missing rooster sitting in grassJerod echoed those sentiments. “The time and effort we put into our land is our way of paying Mother Nature back. It’s our responsibility to be good stewards of the land, not only for our enjoyment, but also for future generations.” Having acquired their land just in October 2010, the Olsons haven’t yet seen substantial results, but they have every reason to be hopeful.

“Depending on management, you may not see immediate results, but a lot of times you do,” said Teeter, who has helped the Olsons develop their conservation plan. “Usually, the more intensive the management and disturbance of grassland, the more dramatic the results and immediate the change.”

Indeed, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, in the early days of CRP and of its predecessor, the federal Soil Bank Act, pheasant numbers exploded. Then, once the initial plant diversity waned, so too did pheasant numbers. The key appears to lie in sustaining healthy diversity, which falls on the shoulders of those who own, live on and make a living from the land.

What can we learn from the way the Olsons tend their land? What can the pheasant’s decline—and potential rebound—tell us about us? About sustaining ourselves?

Pheasants can’t live on tiny islands of brome surrounded by seas of corn and soybeans. Likewise, we can’t thrive in a homogenized world. Just as we need a variety of foods to sustain our bodies, our communities need a variety of cultural influences, perspectives and resources to thrive.

As goes Nebraska’s wildlife, so goes Nebraska’s rural life. What’s good for the grouse is good for the gardener.

In this way, the question of whether the non-native ring-necked pheasant belongs in Nebraska is akin to the question of whether Europeans (or Hispanics or Africans or Asians) truly belong here. Like the ring-neck, the vast majority of us are non-natives who’ve made our ways and our homes in this place. And our ability to continue thriving here is equally tied to a delicate diversity. Nebraska, and especially rural Nebraska, needs sound science, a multifaceted economy, diversity of thought and culture, and a shared respect for the relationship between a healthy place and a healthy self.

As we consider whether and how to preserve the pheasant, we must remember that one of the species relying on Nebraska for habitat is our own.