Delivering Mail, Counting Animals

In Nebraska, the wildlife check is in the mail

10-01-2002 // Gillian Klucas

ROBERT SHORT loves to tell critter stories. After nearly 20 years as a rural mail carrier in southeastern Nebraska, Short has a lot of stories to tell. Ask him about the great horned owl he rescued from a barbed wire fence, and he'll tell you how he drove it 90 miles to a raptor recovery center and, months later, returned it to the wild. Or his tussle with a pheasant that flew into his car.

Bumping down dusty country roads near Fairbury in his white Ford sedan with a flashing yellow light on the roof, Short keeps an eye out for critters. It's not just because he enjoys keeping track of his wild friends as he travels along his 110-mile mail route six days a week. It's also because, on this hot, humid day in July, he's helping Nebraska officials collect data on the changing wildlife landscape.

For a few days in April, July and October every year, state officials ask rural mail carriers to keep track of the wild creatures they see as they fan out across the prairie delivering letters and parcels. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's longest-running program, the Rural Mail Carrier Survey, began in 1944, primarily to obtain pheasant counts for setting hunting seasons. Today, Short and his colleagues also note other species easily identified from the road: quail, grouse, wild turkeys, cottontail rabbits, jackrabbits and deer. More than 500 of Nebraska's 700 carriers voluntarily participate. "They have us outnumbered," says Nebraska's upland game manager, Scott Taylor. "They're covering many more miles than we could ever hope to."

When combined with data from other sources, the mail carriers' survey results help state officials track trends for many species. For example, the 2001 count showed that pheasant and quail numbers plummeted nearly 30 percent from the previous year, probably due to Nebraska's snowy winter and wet spring, Taylor says.

The longer wildlife trends are mixed--survey data show that wild turkeys (reintroduced in 1959), deer and cottontails are thriving. But Short and his fellow carriers are finding 80 percent fewer pheasants than their 1950s counterparts, says Taylor. Sharp-tailed grouse and bobwhite quail are also losing ground. These findings mirror results from other surveys, which show declines in grassland bird species.

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