OMAHA — It's pheasant hunting season, and that means hot pre-dawn hunter breakfasts, bird dogs dashing after scents across big country fields and ring-necked roosters bursting into the air amid squads of orange-clad hunters.
Orange hats, vests, jackets and other gear are so commonly seen during upland bird seasons that many hunters assume they are mandated garb.
Blaze orange — also known as hunter orange — is required for big-game hunting with a firearm, but not for the roughly 93,000 hunters chasing pheasants and quail in Nebraska or for those in many other states.
Alicia Hardin, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's wildlife division administrator, said upland game hunters are strongly encouraged to wear hunter orange, especially during rifle deer season, "but it's not required," she said.
Game and Parks is studying the issue after commissioners recently voted down a staff recommendation to move the start of pheasant and quail hunting hours to sunrise beginning next year — instead of the traditional 30 minutes before sunrise — for safety and other reasons.
Commissioners Rex Fisher and Dick Bell, both of Omaha, and Jim Ernst of Columbus supported changing the start of shooting to sunrise during the commission's Oct. 20 meeting in Omaha. The proposal was defeated on a 6-3 vote.
Fisher, commission chairman, said he supported changing the shooting time because of concerns about safety and the ability to correctly identify roosters in low-light conditions. Daily shooting hours end at sunset.
"As a hunter, I don't think it's safe to send our youth and inexperienced hunters into the field when it's dark," he said recently. "On a cloudy day before sunrise you can't always see someone in the field with you, even when they're wearing hunter orange."
Fisher said it would take only one pre-dawn accident for people to question the purpose and value of permitting pheasant hunting before dawn.
"If something bad were to happen in the dark, we would need to be able to say we allowed hunting before sunrise because of why again?" he said. "I'm a lifelong hunter, I get it (about why being in the field early is a pheasant season tradition), but safety is too important."
Fisher said a later starting time would allow for more certain identification of roosters — meaning fewer hens shot by mistake in the dark — and would give hunters an extra 30 minutes to visit a local restaurant for a cup of coffee or breakfast before heading into the field.
Cultural traditions surrounding pheasant hunting — hunter breakfasts hosted by small-town service organizations, for example — were forged during the peak of ring-neck abundance in the late 1940s. Since then, the number of birds and hunters and the amount of prime farmland habitat have generally declined. Benefits to rural communities generated by pheasant hunting have also been greatly reduced, Game and Parks says.
The agency launched an initiative last year to produce the best pheasant hunting experiences for the most people by 2021. They called it the Berggren Plan, for late Commissioner Lynn Berggren of Broken Bow. The document seeks to increase the state's pheasant population and the land open to hunting in areas with abundant pheasants.
Fisher said he felt the staff's proposed shooting hour changes would be a good fit with the Berggren Plan goals, including fostering strong relationships with local communities, such as encouraging economic opportunities.
The idea of changing the shooting time generally generated opposition in meetings with hunters in Alliance, Broken Bow, Cambridge, Hartington, Hebron, McCook and Sidney earlier this year, Hardin said.
At the Omaha commission meeting, the sunrise proposal was opposed by the Nebraska Sportsmen's Foundation, Nebraska Izaak Walton League, Nebraska Big Game Association and others. Two people spoke in favor. Twenty-five of 45 letters or emails on the issue were opposed.
Hardin said most hunters are safety-conscious. Game and Parks reports show that 35 of the 97 active hunting incidents during the past decade involved pheasant and other small-game hunters.
Hardin said 23 of the 35 cases involved hunters wounding someone by swinging too far after game or being unaware of their target or what was beyond it.
Brad Heidel, executive director of the International Hunter Education Association, said that although hunter orange is not required at all times in many states, it should be worn for visibility whenever hunters are in the field.
"It's just common sense," he said.
Iowa is among the few states requiring upland game hunters to wear blaze orange, according to a Heidel's survey of states.
At the direction of commissioners, Hardin and others are researching what other states do about requiring blaze-orange clothing for hunting upland birds or other game throughout the year.
Hardin said she will report back to commissioners in January, but potential changes to regulations would not be drafted for possible consideration until later next year.