Bill to restore pheasant populations puts bounty on their nest predators

A new bill, LB 400, proposed by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would put a bounty on all nest predators, including the badger, coyote, opossum, raccoon, red fox, striped skunk and more, to help restore pheasant populations in Nebraska.

 The bill states that pheasants are an important part of Nebraska’s ecology and economy because pheasant hunting is an important part of the state’s culture. Under the Nebraska Pheasant Restoration Act, $10 will be offered for each nest predator killed or captured for a maximum of 50,000 bounties each year. 

At the Committee hearing, Brewer said it was important to restore Nebraska’s pheasant populations because it’s an important experience for young hunters across the state.

“We’re not giving our youth the opportunity to become hunters and instill that spirit in them,” Brewer said. “We’re negatively affecting families because we used to all come together and we aren’t doing that anymore.”

Proponents of the bill shared Brewers views on pheasant populations and nest predators and came to the committee hearing testifying in support of the bill.

John Ross, a proponent of the bill and farmer in eastern Nebraska, testified at the hearing and said there was a noticeable decline of pheasants on his farm since the 70s and 80s.

Ross said that in spite of adding more pheasant habitat around his farm, numbers were not increasing. Ross said he believed predator control should be used as a management tool because it would help balance the number of predators to the number of prey in a habitat.

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Wildlife biologists, however, are displeased with the bill as they suggest that bounty systems are not an effective way to restore populations of vulnerable animals and that habitat loss is the real culprit.

 John Carroll, director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and gamebird biologist, said the bill has multiple flaws in its system.

 “We generally have looked at bounties as highly problematic, and the laundry list of problems is very long,” Carroll said.

 Carroll said decreasing pheasant populations are not a result of nest predation. He said that while nest predators can play a role in pheasant mortality, the acres of agricultural land that have swept across eastern Nebraska, especially the monoculture of corn and soybeans, have destroyed pheasant habitats, resulting in the bird’s decline.

 Carroll said pheasants need diverse habitats to survive, including trees to roost in, tall, dense grass to nest in and open prairies to perform mating rituals. The implementation of row crops destroys these essential requirements, therefore, decreasing pheasant populations across the state, he said.

 Additionally, Carroll said coyotes were included on the bill’s list of nest predators, but coyotes are not actually a threat to pheasants as are other mammalian predators such as the striped skunk and raccoon. In fact, coyotes helped increase pheasant populations by killing predators of pheasants.

 “If you think about that for a second, you go “wow” that’s kind of cool. Coyotes are doing our job for us because they’re actually improving the conditions for ground nesters,” Carroll said. “If I were going to do a predator management project, right off the bat, I would exclude coyotes from the removal because I would see them as being a net benefit to the nest success there.”

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 Carroll is not alone in his disagreement of the bill. During the Committee Hearing for LB400, wildlife biologists and opponents of the bill swarmed the capital with an overwhelming disapproval of the bill.

 Around 10 opponents came to testify at the hearing, echoing Carroll’s words.

 Representatives from Pheasants Forever, Nebraska Game and Parks, and Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, opposed the bill citing various solutions to restore pheasant habitats.

 Laura Stastny, executive director of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, said it was immoral to put bounties on the predators during denning seasons as it could potentially kill the mothers of young offspring, leaving them to die unprotected and unnourished. Additionally, Stastny said that large predators control mid level predators better than any other management practice would.

“Although it’s controversial, allowing mountain lions and coyotes on our landscape actually controls raccoons and other mid-level predators better than humans can,” Stastny said.

 Among some of the people working to restore pheasant habitats is Andrew Little, a habitat management specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Little is currently working with a group of students to help restore habitats of pheasants through a concept called precision conservation.

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 Little described precision conservation as a solution to help producers maximize overall return on investment, ROI, while implementing conservation measures within that realm. In other words, how can private landowners benefit from implementing conservation strategies onto their land? How can they use conservation management practices that take into account certain variabilities across a natural and agricultural landscape?

 Little gave an example of precision conservation by telling the story of one of his students who is working on virtual fencing in the Sandhills, a sort of invisible fencing mechanism that could fence out particular areas of a landscape to be used for various reasons, such as protecting land for a nesting habitat.

 “I think habitat management is really one of the most significant pieces that we need to focus on, particularly restoration for a variety of birds and other wildlife species,” Little said.

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