As farmers across the Midwest have simplified the landscape and plowed up grassland to grow more corn and soybeans, habitat for pheasants, quail and other grassland birds has become increasingly scarce and their numbers are falling.
In Nebraska, wild pheasant concentrations have fallen 86 percent since their peak in the 1960s. The pheasant harvest during hunting season in Iowa is off 63 percent from the highs reached in the 1970s. In areas that used to be overrun, you’ll struggle to find a pheasant now.
It’s easy to see why if you take a birds-eye view. Larkin Powell, a wildlife biologist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, says aerial photos of farmland can tell the story. In a photograph from 1938 of a mile section of farmland in central Nebraska, you can see the many different kinds of crops farmers grew.
“We’ve got a patchwork, you know, 20 or 25 different little squares here,” Powell said, pointing to squares of what are likely grass pasture, oats, wheat and corn.
But over the decades the land has been simplified for irrigation and farming efficiency. Fewer crops cover more space, pushing habitat to the margins.
Powell looked at the same land in 2010. It was mostly covered by three big fields of corn or soybeans.
“You can see tracks of at least 3 center pivots here,” Powell said. “So three-fourths of that square mile are now completely all a single crop.”
Areas where pheasants would have once found shelter were cleared from the fields to accommodate the irrigation pivots.
“The fencerows are essentially gone from those areas and we’re really going from road to road,” Powell said.
Even land once set aside for habitat is being converted for farming. The number of acres in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, shrunk by more than 300,000 acres in Nebraska from 2008-2013.
“When I was a kid growing up you could walk any fencerow within a mile of my place and kick out a pheasant,” said Chad Rathman, who raises 1,000 acres of seed corn and soybeans near Wood River in central Nebraska. “But you don’t see them anymore.” Rathman, who also hunts deer, turkeys, and pheasants, said farmers are trying to get more from the land they have. And they are succeeding.
In the time pheasants have been declining, Nebraska farmers are growing 400 percent more corn on 80 percent more land. Farmers have taken land out of CRP and the government is allowing less land in the program.
“The government cut the CRP acres,” Rathman said. “When you start cutting that and the price of corn is what it is, economically (farmers) are not going to leave it in CRP. I mean, it ain’t to hurt the pheasant population or anything. It’s just economical.”
The way things are going it’s hard for conservation to keep up with the economics of farming.
Ben Wheeler of the hunting conservation group Nebraska Pheasants Forever, stood recently on a dirt road along a corn field in rural Valley County. Just over a year ago the field was a hilly grass pasture. Then it was plowed up, filled in and put under center pivot irrigation.
“It’s not uncommon around here for native grass to be turned over into cropland,” Wheeler said. “And if this continues it’s a little bit difficult to imagine what this place is going to look like in 20 years from now.”
Wheeler said it’s not just the pheasants that are missing. It’s the hunters who fill rural hotels and restaurants this time of year. A survey from U.S. fish and Wildlife shows each pheasant harvested is worth $93 to the Nebraska economy. The pheasant harvest over the last decade was about half what it was as recently as the 1990s.
“A lot of folks have given up hunting altogether as a product of law of diminishing returns,” Wheeler said. “So if we want to have pheasants out there, quail out there, prairie chickens, we’re going to have to find a way to work habitat in to the fabric of our agricultural landscape.”
Pheasants are so scarce in many areas once known for hunting that the animals are being farmed and trucked in in order to prop up the local hunting economy. Like stocking a trout pond, farmed pheasants are used to boost bird numbers for hunting season. That’s because, across the Midwest, wild populations have been displaced by a landscape that’s friendly to farmers but not pheasants.
At Double Barrel Game Farm near McCool Junction, Neb., Dustin Chrisman raises birds in urban densities. Sliding open the door of a white barn, Chrisman can hear the sound of thousands of cackling pheasants filling the air. Rooster pheasants strut through tall weeds showing off their vibrant blue heads and bright white rings around their necks.
On Chrisman’s farm, pheasant pens cover 15 acres. Each one is 700 feet long, 14 feet high and topped with black netting. He raised nearly 50,000 birds this year, but said demand for farm-raised pheasants is growing.
“Every year we keep adding pens for another 10,000-15,000 birds,” Chrisman said. “Hopefully (we’ll) be raising 100,000 in 5 years.”
He sells pheasants across the Plains to farmers and private hunting areas, mostly in regions once-known for their pheasant hunting.
“We go to Wyoming, Colorado, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma,” Chrisman said. The tension between pheasant populations and expanding farming operations has played out for years across the Midwest. So far, much of the pheasant population has fallen victim to a changing landscape.
Agriculture will continue to determine what happens on the land. It’s the decisions farmers and other landowners make that will tip the balance for wildlife habitat.