By Vance Ehmke
It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when opening day of pheasant hunting season was a pretty big deal. But my, oh my, how times have changed.
Back then every motel room in the county had been booked up for a year in advance. There was not a box of shotgun shells left on a store shelf anywhere. You had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to get gas. And it was really exciting—it was almost like Christmas. The American Legion was packed with people you had never seen before –and every other one had a shell and game vest on along with an orange cap. They were all dressed in brown. And the main topic of the evening was where you had the best luck finding birds. Or how quick did you limit out?
But the main question today is, “Did you see any birds at all?”
We’ve always had ups and downs in pheasant numbers. One year we had numerous severe hail storms and it took a good year or so for them to come back. Severe droughts do the same time to the population. Still, they always came back. But today I guess I’ve been waiting long enough that I’m starting to wonder if something has changed.
According to K-State Extension wildlife specialist Charlie Lee, it’s not my imagination. “In 2018, there were 340,000 birds harvested in Kansas. That’s about half of the long term 63-year average of 600,000. In the top year of 1982, Kansas pheasant hunters bagged 1.1 million birds.”
So what happened? Charlie says a lot of people focus on winter survival and think winter food and cover are the causes. “But I think nesting and brood rearing habitats are more likely the limiting factors. In brief, we don’t need to feed a bird in winter that didn’t get born or survive till fall.”
K-State entomologist Sarah Zukoff agrees that loss of habitat plays a big role in the decline of the pheasant population. But the problem is compounded by the fact that this same loss of habitat is also affecting pollinators and other insects in the same dramatic way. So at the end of the day, if food plants, cover from predators and insect food sources are limited or are eliminated, it greatly affects pheasant numbers.
So what is happening to habitat? Over the past 20 and 30 years, farming has changed….a lot. Randy Rodgers, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, says we started using more herbicides, we intensified crop rotations and we adopted use of higher yielding shorter wheat varieties. We moved away from fallow-wheat rotations while also making sure post harvest weeds were controlled. In brief, we now have untold thousands of acres of beautiful clean stubble on increasingly large acreages with fewer and fewer field borders and uncropped waste areas.
Rodgers says pheasants had been able to nest successfully in green wheat in the spring. Then broadleaf weed growth in the post harvest wheat stubble provided pheasant chicks with an abundant supply of insects which are essential for the first two months of life. The weed canopy also provided protection from the elements and from predators. That protection carried them well into the next spring when they’d move back into the new wheat on nearby fields to start the cycle all over again.
But today we want no weed growth in our drive to conserve moisture for the next crop. And with more moisture, we now grow grain sorghum or corn instead of fallow. Farming is an intensively competitive industry. And from the business point of view, you have no choice but to be as good as you can be. Good for the pocket book. Bad for the wildlife.
Further, Brittany Smith, biologist with Pheasants Forever, says research shows weed-free wheat and sorghum stubble are least preferred nesting sites. “Chem fallow and a general decline in high quality nesting and brood cover have led to a sharp decline in bird numbers. In this highly intensive ag landscape, wetlands tend to be the last remaining refuges for wildlife.”
In the broader picture, loss of habitat is affecting far more than just pheasant and quail numbers, according to Mariah Ehmke, University of Wyoming ag economist. Citing data from Cornell University and Georgetown University, she says nearly a third of all wild birds in the US and Canada have vanished since 1970. Especially hard hit has been the bird populations in the grassland areas including Kansas where more than half of our birds have disappeared. Outside of habitat loss and increasing temperatures, other contributors to the problem include increased use of pesticides as well as feral and domestic cats and collisions with buildings.
Here in Kansas, the red-winged blackbird is in full retreat along with our state bird, the western meadowlark. Since 1970, 70% of our eastern meadowlarks and 60% of our horned larks have vanished. Even robins, starlings and sparrows are in trouble.
Researchers from these universities say birds are indicator species serving as barometers of environmental health. These mass declines in numbers signal the earth’s biological systems are in trouble. Is it a problem? Or is it a crisis?
KSU’s Charlie Lee says whoever controls the habitat can have a big say in our future. And therein lies some good news. Populations of North American ducks and geese have grown by 56% since 1970 largely because hunters became deeply concerned about declines in duck populations that were every bit as severe as what we’re seeing today with other species. As a result laws were written to protect wetlands while conservation management was encouraged. Groups like Ducks Unlimited were especially influential and effective at turning near disaster into today’s booming waterfowl populations.
Wildlife biologist Kevin Luman with KDWPT says the pheasants and quail are still out there and can come back. “But they need habitat for that to happen. And that means we need a lot more outdoor diversity including such things as more wild flowers, pollinators, CRP acreages and cover crops. We also need to do some other things like raise up combine heads when harvesting wheat or use stripper headers.”
Luman points out there are a lot of resources that farmers and landowners can use. “For instance, our wildlife department has a Habitat First cost-share programwhich covers a variety of habitat improvements and developments.”
Outside of the KDWPT, landowners can find other help with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, Ducks Unlimited , the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and USDA’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service.
From a farmer/landowner perspective, one of the most useful programs is the CB 38B playa lake CRP. Here on our farm Louise and I have enrolled right at 500 acres of our least profitable and most unproductive land in this program which is now dedicated to wildlife habitat and aquifer recharge. This land includes most of the 80 playa lakes on our farm.
We are also very excited to be working with KDWPT on a whole farm evaluation where we’re looking at literally field on the farm for opportunities to apply practices to enhance the environment and wildlife We’d probably be better off financially if all of our fields were flat Harney silt loam soils. But now when you drive past all of those perfectly flat fields with perfect weed control, you’re starting to wonder if maybe there’s something missing.