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  • Hitler’s Effect on Wildlife in NebraskaWorld War II and Farmed Landscapes
  • Larkin Powell (bio)
Key Words

agriculture, crops, landscape change, livestock, Great Plains

Rural mail carriers in Nebraska have been counting ring-necked pheasants and other wildlife for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission since 1951. These data are the longest bits of information of which I am aware for wildlife in our state. The long-term trend is not positive, often causing hunters to ask what happened to pheasants in Nebraska (Fig. 1). If we investigate the history of our landscapes, the answer to that question becomes clear: we have changed the landscape in Nebraska.

Human brains, as it turns out, have limited abilities to retain and assess long-term trends. Scientists who study this phenomenon are lumped into the field of “landscape perception,”1 and they suggest that humans are good at realizing trends that happen over relatively short time periods (between five and ten years, perhaps). But we often are oblivious to patterns of change that occur even within the span of our lifetime. And it is certainly hard for us to pull information together to realize patterns that happen over several generations.

Engage any farmer or rancher in Nebraska, and he or she can tell you about the “good old days” of large numbers of pheasants in eastern Nebraska or prairie-chickens in the Sandhills. Keep asking them questions, and you will find them to be a great source of information about changes that occurred in row-crop agriculture or ranching from their grandparents’ generation to theirs. As they talk, farmers may begin to remember more details about how their farm looked when their father sold it to them. You may hear them say, “You know, I do remember that we had a lot more plum thickets in our fencerows back then!”

After deeper conversation with farmers, they begin to connect the changes that happened on the landscape to the changes in populations of [End Page 1] pheasant or northern bobwhite. It is that final connection—between long-distance changes of one thing (habitat, in this case) and the current state of another thing (pheasant or quail population size in their neighborhood) that is hard for the human brain to make, the social scientists tell us. Thus, there is a role for the historian of landscapes—to document trends and help us make connections between the past and our present.

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Fig. 1.

Rural mail carrier survey data for ring-necked pheasants in Nebraska. Population trends are reported as number of pheasants seen per distance driven.

Data courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Photo insert of ring-necked pheasant is available in the public domain.

Nebraskans are not the only ones who have kept records of wildlife populations. One longterm data set that may be useful to our conversation is the record of another pheasant-like bird, the gray partridge, in southern England (Fig. 2). The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust maintains these records, which go back to 1826. The last portion of their data—from 1951 to the present—can be compared to the pheasant data from Nebraska. The data from England suggest a similar downward trend in the population of a bird that, like the pheasant, inhabits farmed landscapes comparable to those in eastern Nebraska. The Trust has pieced together story to explain the records:

There are large annual fluctuations, most probably linked to weather. Indeed, the [End Page 2] collapse of bags in 1869 corresponds to the coldest year on record since 1740. Despite large swings from year to year, the underlying pattern (green line) charts the rise in popularity of this gamebird during the first half of the 19th century and its heyday during the second half of that century up to the First World War. The high average bags reflect the high densities arising from the extensive mixed agriculture that developed especially after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the ruthless elimination of predators by private gamekeepers and improvements in shotgun design. Partridge bags remained high until the Second World War, but declined thereafter, especially after the introduction of herbicides...


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