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High above the main street of Silver Creek, Neb., 90 miles west of Omaha, giant plywood placards spell out the words GRAND NATIONAL MIXED BAG HUNT. In store windows and shop fronts, brightly painted signs and posters welcome visitors to the year's biggest event in one of the smallest towns (pop. 480) on the Platte River.
As its imposing name suggests, the three-day Grand National, which takes place on the first weekend in November, is a hunt for a potpourri of small game—raccoon, rabbit, squirrel, duck, goose, pheasant and quail. And doing the hunting is a comparable mixture of celebrities, which in the event's four-year history has included Astronauts Ron Evans and Paul Weitz, actors Roy Rogers and Dennis Morgan, baseball personalities Roger Nelson, Norm Siebern and Hank Bauer, and a covey of governors.
Hosting the affair is the entire town of Silver Creek, its citizens having been skillfully schooled in outdoors etiquette by a 58-year-old educational administrator named Bruce Cowgill. Cowgill's efforts have earned him sufficient local fame for his picture to be prominently displayed in the window of Robak's Phillips 66 station at the corner of Vine and Route 30 with a sign proclaiming him CREEK'S NO. 1 CITIZEN. Although the picture was installed two years ago, nobody in town has since challenged Cowgill's title.
Nebraska has long called itself the Mixed Bag State, and certainly there is a cornucopia of small game around Silver Creek, but neither fact completely explains all the hoopla surrounding the Grand National. Nor does it account for the number of people, up to 1,000, who annually arrive from all over the country, especially since many have equivalent hunting available considerably closer to home. The key is what Bruce Cowgill has done to be named Creek's No. 1 citizen.
Psychologists could probably offer an assortment of complex rationales to explain Cowgill's all-consuming dedication to creating and promoting the Grand National Mixed Bag Hunt, and doubtless some of them would be true. But as far as Cowgill himself is concerned, he has had only one aim: to save the game before it is gone. It has been going entirely too fast for his taste. In the 1950s there were 18 million pheasants in Nebraska's cornfields. Today that number has fallen to around three million. The stocks of quail, rabbit and squirrel have dwindled proportionately.
Although hunters are often blamed for this state of affairs, studies show that the farmer is the principal villain—although in most cases an unwitting one. What has happened to Nebraska's small game in the last quarter of a century is linked directly to what has happened to farming. As the soil-bank program ran out and land that had been deliberately retired was again put into production, and as farm equipment and techniques became so sophisticated that it was possible to cultivate even tiny fractions of land, the ground cover that provided nesting, feed and security for game began to disappear. With each fence row and coulee that fell to the plow, so, too, fell families of pheasants or quail or grouse. Without habitat there can be no game. Biologists and wildlife management experts had no trouble recognizing the problem, but there was little they could do about solving it.
"Obviously the needs of private landowners came first," Cowgill says, "and it did not make sense to expect them to retire productive acreage from cultivation purely to provide game cover.
"But it did occur to me that a lot of marginal land was also being cleared, burned, mowed and sprayed simply because it was adjacent to productive land, easy to clear and looked better if it matched the rest of the terrain. In addition, huge stretches of land along highways, railroad rights-of-way and drainage ditches were being cleared purely for cosmetic reasons. I figured if I could convince the people with jurisdiction over these lands, along with the farmers, that by leaving them untouched they would be doing a genuine service to wildlife and to their state, we might be able to restore at least part of the habitat."
Cowgill worked out a program that was both simple and practical. It involved a landowner setting aside an acre or more of marginal or submarginal land for a period of one year during which his sole obligation was to do nothing. The land was not to be mowed, plowed, burned, grazed or sprayed. Other than this nonaction, the landowner retained full rights over the acreage, including the right to close it to hunting if he so wished.
In return for permitting his land to go wild, the farmer received a year's free subscription to the state's conservation magazine NEBRASKA land, a green-and-white "Cover Agent" shoulder patch and two sets of signs: one to mark the area as cover for wildlife, and one to identify the landowner as a participant in the project.