Outdoor Recreation in Nebraska Is For The Birds

What started as an effort to protect wildlife habitat has turned into an economic windfall for hunters, fishers, birdwatchers, the tourism industry and the state’s public and private land users.

By Lindsay Warner September 20, 2017

At sunrise during the spring months, the grasslands of southwestern Nebraska come alive with the sounds and sights of the Greater Prairie Chickens’ elaborate mating dance. The males puff up brightly colored air sacs on their necks, raise their long neck feathers so they look like horns, and let out loud booming noise. They stamp and shuffle their feet rapidly, then hop high in the air as part of a spectacular dance designed to attract a female mate.

That [the greater prairie hens] survive—and thrive—at all is a testament to Nebraska’s work to preserve and improve the birds’ habitat. And in keeping public lands open to wildlife habit, the state also boosts its outdoor economy: a win/win for wildlife and people.

Whether the males manage to catch the eye of the female prairie chickens waiting nearby or not, the rare birds have captured the attention of curious humans, many of whom descend upon McCook, Nebraska, each spring to go on a special Prairie Chicken Dance Tour.

Visitors from all over the world pay $100 to get up before dawn and be ferried by a guide to a viewing location from which they can watch the chickens strut their stuff (a hot breakfast follows). And when the season ends in May, people start asking when they can book for the following year.

When Carol Schlegel, tourism director for McCook/Red Willow County started running the tours five years ago, she could promise visitors five or six roosters, and two or three hens. “Now, we’re seeing 20 roosters and nine or ten hens each morning,” Schlegel says. “And I absolutely attribute the bump in numbers to the work that’s been done to preserve the habitat for other birds, such as turkey and pheasant.”

That’s a victory for the whimsical grouse; of the three species of prairie chickens in the U.S., one is extinct (the Heath Hen), one is endangered (the Lesser Prairie Chicken), and one is the Greater Prairie Hen, found only in specific parts of the Midwest. That they survive—and thrive—at all is a testament to Nebraska’s work to preserve and improve the birds’ habitat. And in keeping public lands open to wildlife habit, the state also boosts its outdoor economy: a win/win for wildlife and people.

An Economy Driven by Hunting and Fishing

Conversations about the outdoor industry often revolve around hiking, biking, skiing and paddling, but hunting and fishing are an equally important segment of the industry—particularly in Nebraska.

Conversations about the outdoor industry often revolve around hiking, biking, skiing and paddling, but hunting and fishing are an equally important segment of the industry—particularly in Nebraska.

In the 8,000-person town of McCook, where Schlegel leads her prairie chicken tours, the main occupation may be agriculture, but the main recreation is hunting. While pheasant hunting has been the cornerstone of Nebraska’s upland game hunting scene since the 1920s, plenty of other species draw both locals and out-of-staters. Quail, grouse and wild turkey hunting opportunities abound, as do opportunities to hunt furbearers such as beaver, bobcat, fox, opossum and cottontails. Big-game hunters take out license on deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep, while a variety of waterfowl and fish populate the many reservoirs and lakes scattered across the state. You can even hunt for mountain lion.

The main occupation may be agriculture, but the main recreation is hunting.

Learn more about the fishing and fly fishing consumers. Download the ConsumerVue infographic.

McCook County attracts the largest number of hunter/fishers, thanks to the several thousand acres of public hunting land that surround its reservoirs, providing “amazing opportunities for wildlife and outdoor recreation that we wouldn’t otherwise have had,” notes Schlegel. But opportunities abound across the state.

“There are hidden gems everywhere that hold great numbers of turkeys,” says Alicia Hardin, wildlife division administrator at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, who has hunted all over the state. “There are different landscapes and different stories across all of Nebraska, from the canyon areas, to the dunes, to the sand hills, to areas rich with elk where it’s easy to forget you’re in the corn belt.”

“There are different landscapes and different stories across all of Nebraska, from the canyon areas, to the dunes, to the sand hills, to areas rich with elk where it’s easy to forget you’re in the corn belt.” —Alicia Hardin, wildlife division administrator at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

The Best Turkey Hunting Destination in the U.S.

Download the report.

The diversity of Nebraska’s wildlife is a great attraction. But just this spring, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts decided it was time to hone in on the state’s gobblers, signing a proclamation on April 12 declaring Nebraska “the Best Turkey Hunting Destination in the United States.” The facts back up what could be seen as a gubernatorial PR stunt for the bird. Among his reasons:

  • An abundant population of turkey, with hunting opportunities in 93 counties.
  • High measures of satisfaction from turkey hunters in recent surveys.
  • A long spring and fall hunting season.
  • A budget-friendly youth permit priced at $8 (7,267 youth permits were sold in 2015)
  • Unlimited turkey permits available (42,431 permits sold in 2016; of those, 14,191 went to non-residents).
  • More than 400,000 acres of land are open to public hunting.

It’s a pretty compelling checklist, designed to lure locals and out-of-state residents who might be on the fence about hunting in Nebraska. But it’s a worthwhile bid for Gov. Ricketts to make: According to OIA’s Outdoor Recreation Economy report, hunting in Nebraska generates $361 million in direct retail spending and supports 3,000 direct jobs. In total, more than 49,000 people in the state of 1.8 million owe their jobs to the outdoor economy.

Infrastructure to Support Hunters

One of Nebraska’s most unique benefits is its hospitality to hunters. “We’re very welcoming folk here,” notes Hardin. “That’s what we hear from out-of-state visitors the most—about how great the people were that they met while visiting.”

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, alongside several other businesses, organizations, and community groups … started investing in and creating various hunting and migratory tracking programs and in evaluating hunting limits and regulations. They worked to educate hunters and to conserve land. They provided incentives to landowners to help grow the population and put programs in place to encourage out-of-staters to visit. And while many of the programs were designed to bolster one specific population—such as pheasants, for example—they worked equally well to support others, such as the prairie chickens and wild turkey.

That Midwestern friendliness trickles down to two specific benefits: a proliferation of hunter-friendly accommodations, and a well-mapped network of public and private lands.

“It’s pretty full around here during open season for turkey,” Hardin says. “We’ve gone out and talked to people in seven different communities across the state, and what emerged over and over was the impact turkey and deer hunting have on those areas. A lot of relationships get established between the hunters and some of the smaller hotels and motels. Soon, you’ve got a family hunting tradition started.”

Still, though, the quality of the hunting always drives the market. Schlegel, whose family ran a hotel and restaurant for 46 years in McCook County, watched the ups and downs follow the hunting and fishing populations first-hand. When the pheasant population boomed during the ’80s, the hotel would frequently be sold out.

“We were always happy to have service organizations like Kiwanis serve up pancake feeds or a bowl fry in the evening during those years,” she says. “It raised money for their organizations, and it took the pressure off of restaurant owners like my family.”

But when the pheasant population dwindled in the ’90s, “that was all pretty much over,” Schlegel says. Her family closed their hotel and restaurant. Packed-full pancake breakfasts on hunting mornings were a thing of the past. So the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, alongside several other businesses, organizations, and community groups, got more involved. They started investing in and creating various hunting and migratory tracking programs and in evaluating hunting limits and regulations. They worked to educate hunters and to conserve land. They provided incentives to landowners to help grow the population and put programs in place to encourage out-of-staters to visit. And while many of the programs were designed to bolster one specific population—such as pheasants, for example—they worked equally well to support others, such as the prairie chickens and wild turkey.

And the effort to boost the state’s support of its hunting and fishing economy paid off, says Schlegel. “As a farmer, I have a good perch from the seat of my combine, and the bird population has drastically increased over the past seven or eight years. Twenty years ago I’d rarely see a wild turkey. I saw about 10 of them just on my way to work this morning.”

Access to Public and Private Lands Makes Hunting Possible

Nebraska’s other hole card is its free access to public and private lands. Headed by the Game and Parks Commission, a conglomerate of hunters, anglers, landowners, private organizations and government agencies came together to create the Nebraska Public Access Atlas, which identifies all lands and waterways available for use by hunters, trappers and anglers. It’s free, and available in hard copy or digitally.

“We have plenty of public land opportunities that offer excellent turkey hunting; the Open Fields and Waters program [which provides financial incentives for private land owners allowing public access and for working with Game and Parks biologists to improve wildlife habitat]; wildlife management programs; and plenty of walk-in areas where you might also bring a fishing rod along as well,” notes Hardin. Hunters must first get permission from landowners to hunt or trap on private land—but as the majority of hunting and fishing in Nebraska takes place on private land, locals seem willing to oblige.

“In focus groups we’ve done with landowners, we’ve discovered that landowners are proud of what they have and want to share it with others,” Hardin says.

Hunting and Fishing is Good for Business

There’s no doubt that when hunting and fishing is good in Nebraska, business is also good.

“Having employees who are motivated about getting outdoors on their own time means that they’re experts on selling the products that help people live that same lifestyle.” —Shawn Reynold, director of global trade compliance at Cabela’s

Learn more about the impact of hunting and fishing on the national outdoor recreation economy with the OIA Outdoor Recreation Economy report.

Nebraska has been home to hunting and fishing retailer Cabela’s since the early 1960s, when founder Dick Cabela started the business in his basement with a handful of hand-tied fishing flies. Today, Cabela’s has a 250,000-square-foot headquarter in Sidney, Nebraska, and employs a large proportion of the 49,000 people working in the outdoor industry across the state. The retailer’s location makes sense; of the thousands of people employed by Cabela’s, nearly all are active hunters and fishers themselves, making them well-suited to their jobs—and passionate about getting others outside.

“Most of the people here at Cabela’s are definitely embracing the hunting and fishing lifestyle,” says Shawn Reynold, director of global trade compliance at Cabela’s. “Nearly everyone hunts or fishes. Many people here have a camp on nearby Lake McConaughy—and I’d never seen so many fifth-wheel campers in my life until moving to Sidney. Having employees who are motivated about getting outdoors on their own time means that they’re experts on selling the products that help people live that same lifestyle.”

 

OIA Retail Member and Nebraska company Cabela’s has compiled great content for its consumers. Check out its Buyers Guides and How To articles for turkey hunting.

Just because Cabela’s is the big guy in town though, doesn’t mean it’s crowded out smaller players in the industry. Cabela’s doesn’t offer guiding services, leaving the door open for smaller, boutique outfitters and guide services to provide customized service in Sidney and elsewhere across the state.

“In the last two years I’ve seen five gun or other outdoor-sports shops open around town,” Schlegel says. “We’re also seeing hotels and motels open up as well. And it’s not just hunting and fishing; long-distance cyclists come through here, as do bikers on their way to Sturgis. Still, hunting and fishing are the dominant attraction. You can make a pretty good living as a hunting and fishing guide here.”

Take Steve Lytle, for example. He’s been running a fishing guide business out of southwestern Nebraska for the past 34 years. While he supplements guiding with other work during the winter months, he’s garnered a portfolio of clients from as far away as Poland, Japan, New Zealand and Germany.

“I stay busy year-round,” Lytle says. “There are a lot of quality fish here, and a lot of different species to attract people. I just pick out the best lake for the time of year and the present condition in order to keep clients coming back.”

Lytle can thank the system of reservoirs around McCook for the good fishing locations. He and the other thousands of residents who are employed by the outdoor industry are fortunate to live in a state that provides a desirable natural habitat to so many species of wildlife. But he’s equally fortunate to live somewhere that values its public and private lands, and has provided the infrastructure to make it a destination for out-of-state visitors.

“Locals strike up relationships with those out-of-state hunters when they visit,” Hardin says. “Then they in turn, bring back more people to hunt here. People return because they feel welcomed.”

The excellent hunting opportunities don’t hurt either.