Senators propose funding $500k bounty on pheasant predators

Jan. 27, 2023, 2:01 p.m. ·

Ring-necked pheasant. (Photo: Creative Commons via Hippopx)

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A law proposed by a pair of Nebraska panhandle legislators would put a 10-dollar bounty on the head of coyotes, foxes, skunks, badgers and other animals considered a threat to the state's pheasants.

Senator Steve Erdman, one of the bill's sponsors, told Nebraska Public Media News, "it's an opportunity for us to restore the pheasant population by controlling the predator."

Wildlife biologists question the effectiveness of programs linking predator reduction to increasing the number of game birds. They cite research indicating a lack of undisturbed nesting cover limits ring-necked pheasant populations.

The Nebraska Pheasant Restoration Act (LB 400), sponsored by Senators Tom Brewer and Erdman, would set aside $500,000 in state funding for a "nest predatory program."

The head of a coyote killed during contest in Kansas is shown.
Coyotes killed during a hunting contest in Kansas. (Photo by David Condos, Kansas News Service)

If passed, the bill would allow the state to pay hunters for the carcasses of 50,000 predators, authorizing payments for $10 for every listed predator trapped or killed.

In support of his claim, Erdman, a sport hunter from Morrill County, said, "It's been a year since I've seen a pheasant."

"The predators are getting in where the pheasants nest, and the population have dwindled to where I don't even know anybody that goes hunting." He added many pheasant hunters in Nebraska must rely on private operations that breed birds in captivity and release them for hunting parties.

Some wildlife researchers challenge the claim that predators are the primary cause of lower game bird populations.

A statement provided by the pro-hunting group Pheasants Forever said, "the science on the issue is clear" that "predators will continue to target pheasants and their nests as Mother Nature intended, but weather and habitat conditions are the ultimate drivers of population."

Coyote on the run with prey.
Coyote on the run with small mammal. (Photo courtesy Pheasants Forever)

The organization published an article on its website noting coyotes may be beneficial to pheasants because they eat smaller mammals that cause a threat to both pheasant eggs and baby chicks.

Surveys by Nebraska Game and Parks, collected through a seasonal study by rural mail carriers, indicate long-term declines in game bird numbers.

The reported sightings of pheasants "were still pretty good through the '60s, '70s, '80s," according to T.J. Walker, a wildlife biologist who tracks game birds for Game and Parks. "And it's been a pretty consistent steady decline since then. And it's definitely habitat related."

According to Walker, extreme weather has recently taken its toll on breeding birds.

"We haven't had a good nesting season for all of our game birds across the state since 2011," he said in a phone interview. "We've had multiple years with very late blizzards that probably wiped out a lot of our first nests by our game birds."

There has been some good news this year. The 2022-23 Upland Game Bird Hunting Outlook, released by Nebraska Game and Parks, noted ring-necked pheasant observations in some areas of the state increased this season, exceeding five-year averages.

Sen. Erdman expressed distrust of the Game and Parks' research.

Asked about the agency's surveys of game bird populations and statements linking declines to habitat and climate, he said, "You're going to have to first convince me that Game and Parks actually does research that means something."

South Dakota implemented a similar plan in 2019 and recently extended it for another four years. South Dakota has conducted no studies on how the nest predator program impacted the population of pheasants or other ground-nesting birds, according to a report in The Capital Journal.