Monday, October 7, 2013

Pheasant Season a Boon to Many Highway 83 Small-Town Economies

The Pheasant Inn, Sublette, Kansas. Photo By Stew Magnuson
It won’t be long before the small town motels in North Dakota along Highway 83 begin filling up. In fact, I wouldn’t travel without a room reservation in October and November in certain communities along the road for the next month.
The reason is the ring-necked pheasant.
Pat Huber, a resident at Don’s Motel in Linton, N.D., tells me all 24 rooms are booked up for a solid month, beginning Oct. 12, the first day of pheasant hunting season in North Dakota.
“It definitely brings income into the town — restaurants, bars, gas stations, motels.” They are all packed, she says.
Would the Linton be otherwise full of out-of-towners spending their money during a non-summer month like October if it weren’t for the hunters?
“Of course not,” she replies.
The hunting season is a shot in the arm to many local economies along Highway 83. And these are small towns that don’t normally draw hordes of tourists.
South Dakota Game Fish and Parks statistics for 2011 tell the tale: 164,197 resident and non-resident hunters, who spent $226 million on the hobby that year in the state. Similar numbers would be expected in North Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska.
And it is all because of a bird that doesn’t really belong here.
The common, or ring-necked, pheasant is not native to the Americas. It comes from China, but they are found in many corners of the world. Yet, it is unlikely to ever be on an endangered species list. And that is because humans enjoy killing it, or perhaps it is a bit softer to say, “they enjoy hunting it.” (Its meat is tasty, to some. But realistically that was not why it was brought here).
I saw a PBS documentary a few years ago I highly recommend called, “The Botany of Desire,” which showed how four species of plants — apples, tulips, marijuana and the potato — have survived and thrived as species because they have certain qualities attractive to humans.
And thus it is so for the pheasant. It was first brought to the United States in the 1800s. It was not domesticated like the chicken and turkey for everyday consumption of meat (although they do end up on some restaurant menus). Some are bred in captivity, but for the purpose of being released and hunted later.
They do well along roads such as Highway 83 because of the plentiful grain on farms combined with nearby grass.
And of course, they thrive because people want them there.
Many invasive or introduced species to our ecosystem make biologists wring their hands. That is not the case with the pheasant.
Pheasants, like most species on the Great Plains, have good years and bad years. Harsh winters and droughts take their tolls on pheasant populations. Habitat loss is also a problem.
U.S. Forest Service photo
And so, we (speaking of the humans) spend a great deal of time and resources to ensure this one species’ survival. 
Pheasants Forever, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring habitats for the birds, has 600 local chapters and 125,000 members. The organization employs more than 100 Farm Bill Biologists, who work with local land owners to help them preserve habitats for game birds, and the wildlife that exists alongside them. McCook and North Platte, Neb., and Oberlin, Kansas, are three Highway 83 towns who have the biologists in residence.
I asked Chris Helzer, ecologist and program director for The Nature Conservatory in Nebraska about pheasants, and their impact on the prairie.
“There is some evidence that pheasants can cause problems for prairie chickens by ‘dumping’ eggs into chicken nests. If those pheasant eggs hatch first, the prairie chicken parents may lead the pheasant chicks off to feed and abandon the unhatched chicken eggs.
“Other than that, I really don’t see any conflicts between pheasants and prairies. I think good prairie management includes providing a variety of habitat structure patches (areas of tall vegetation, patchy vegetation, and short vegetation) and that is very compatible with what pheasants need. Pheasants also do very well in prairies with diverse vegetation with abundant wildflowers.”
The problems come when areas are managed exclusively for pheasant hunting, he said.
“Any management aimed at a single species is usually going to be problematic in the long term because it tends to simplify natural communities, making them less resilient, more prone to invasive species, and lower quality habitat for many wildlife species.”
Helzer praised organization like Pheasants Forever because it takes a holistic approach.
“Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever do some very important work to protect and restore prairie habitats.  In Nebraska, much of that restoration work involves creating diverse grassland plant communities that support many other prairie species besides just pheasants. Perhaps more importantly, [these organizations] can bring awareness about the importance of native prairies to an audience that might not otherwise have that awareness,” he said.

Check out Chris's weekly The Prairie Ecologist blog HERE.
So there you have it. Pheasants are good for the economy and not all that bad for the environment.
Pheasant season along Highway 83 begins in parts of North Dakota Oct. 12, and opening days in other states come later as one goes farther south. South Dakota, Oct. 19; Nebraska, Oct. 26; Kansas, Nov. 9; Oklahoma, Dec. 1 and Texas, Dec. 7. Check out Pheasant Forever's state by state forecast for 2013.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at

Stew Magnuson (stewmag (a) is the author of Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding: The American Indian Movement, the FBI, and their Fight to Bury the Sins of the Past published by the Now & Then Reader. It is available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iTunes. Buy it in paperback on Amazon or bookstores such as Plains Trading Company Booksellers, in Valentine, Neb., on Highway 83.  

NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM:  The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas. 

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