A grassland without birds is like a home without children. Birds and the prairie go hand in hand. Likewise, so do birds and people. Native Americans have incorporated them into spiritual beliefs, symbols and dress for centuries. Pioneers who homesteaded the Great Plains welcomed them as a resource in a variety of ways, including nourishment, beauty and even companionship. Many grassland bird species have served the prairie and its inhabitants faithfully for eons. Sadly, in recent times some of these species have become threatened by a seemingly uphill battle against the plow and other factors that continually shrink their native habitat. Now another partnership between bird and human is being played out on the prairie surrounding Gracie Creek in the Nebraska Sand Hills.
Ten years ago my family, the Switzers, founded a new business, Calamus Outfitters, on our ranch near Burwell, Neb. This diversification was born out of necessity. The next generation wished to live and work on the family ranch but needed other income streams from the land in addition to traditional agriculture. My family turned to tourism. Lodging, hunting, horseback riding and river trips started to help fill the financial void. In 2005 bird-watching was added to the activity list to help flesh out the quiet spring months.
Although the area supports a vast array of bird species, the greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse remain the main draw for birders to visit the Switzer Ranch. Initially, it was uncertain if these prairie birds could attract enough interest to contribute to the bottom line. But, like most things found in grassland settings, what may seem ordinary at first reveals complexity and rare beauty upon closer inspection.
Both in-state and out-of-state visitors started flocking to view the ancient courtship displays and listen to the stirring hooting calls. They witnessed the speckled-brown, chicken-like birds turn into warrior dancers with striking color, handsome pose and deliberate purpose. Each year increasing numbers of bird-watchers and photographers from across the U.S. and abroad travel to witness what one guest from Africa referred to as “the greatest wildlife phenomenon I’ve ever seen.”
Fortunately, bird-watchers in general are a curious lot. After viewing the dancing birds, visitors would start to ask our ranch family questions over hot breakfast. What is the purpose of the display? What is the status of the species? Why is the Sand Hills one of the last places to see prairie chickens? The questions brought to the surface concerns that we had been stewing over for some time.
The older generation of ranchers clearly remember vast numbers of both prairie chickens and grouse dotting the hills. Riding horseback during calving season was always a prime time to spot both species nestled into the grassy hillsides and pause for a minute to enjoy their courtship dancing. However, in some areas, the hills in springtime are now eerily quiet. The prairie grouse are vacating areas that have been fragmented by farming or development and escaping tree-dotted hills in favor of more open grasslands. On the Switzer Ranch, the main threat has been the emergence of the red cedar. Not only do these invasive trees serve as perches for predatory birds, they provide excellent cover for other mammalian predators like skunk and porcupine. Although my family had noticed the troubling trend, we were not spurred to list it as a top priority until the bird-watchers arrived.
By creating another income stream through tourism, the prairie chickens and grouse immediately grew in value. Keeping healthy populations of the species became paramount to the ongoing success of the business. Our family began reaching out to experts, nonprofits and others who could offer expertise and knowledge. In 2009 the ranch zoned out a large portion of acres to become a private nature reserve. Biodiversity goals were brought to the forefront while continuing ranching on the same land. The move has turned into a win-win as the nature reserve component complements the ecotourism business while tackling conservation issues. It is our hope that the combination of these enterprises—livestock production and nature tourism—will make the difference financially so the next generation can stay on the land.
Shortly after the creation of the private nature reserve, two of our family members embarked on a study trip to the African country of Namibia. The trip was sponsored by the Grassland Foundation and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and focused on the successful market-based solutions to conservation found there. A neighboring rancher, Aaron Price, was already spending an extended time in Namibia as a WWF intern. Viewing the economic and rural development potential of nature-based tourism models, there sparked interest in the neighboring landowners to attempt a similar project back home in the Sand Hills.
Three adjacent landholding families came together to discuss the role of birds on their respective ranches and the future of the greater Gracie Creek landscape as a whole. The Morgan Ranch, Price Gracie Creek Ranch and Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters made a commitment to one another to explore issues relating to grassland birds in efforts to maintain or restore their habitat. Together, the group applied and received the Important Bird Area designation from Audubon Nebraska (the first privately owned land in the state to do so). The Gracie Creek Landowners aspire to demonstrate how specific ranching practices may benefit the native habitat of grassland birds, specifically prairie chickens and grouse. In addition, the group believes that these conservation measures can be more effective and efficiently carried out when applied to a larger scale (three or more ranches instead of just one).
Their project was kickstarted by a capacity-building grant awarded by the Nebraska Bird Partnership in cooperation with the Nebraska Environmental Trust. Along with on-the-ground cedar control measures and prescribed fire, we are creating a collaborative management plan that will highlight practices the three ranches can perform to ultimately create a large landscape that has the ability to support healthy populations of grassland birds, especially prairie chickens and grouse. This complements the landowners pre-existing monitoring and mapping program initiated last spring. Each prairie chicken booming ground (also referred to as a lek) and sharp-tailed grouse dancing ground will be identified and entered into a GPS mapping system. Twenty-nine grounds have been mapped thus far, with over half of the project area waiting to be surveyed this year. With the help of volunteers, annual bird counts on these mapped grounds are being conducted in order to measure any changes over time. (For volunteer opportunities, contact Calamus Outfitters: www.calamusoutfitters.com.)
Although shared concern surrounding birds served as the impetus for the landowners to join forces, other opportunities and benefits of collaboration have appeared. Addressing hydrology issues of Gracie Creek is a prime concern for these landowners who find themselves on the lower end of the Gracie Creek watershed. Cooperation in hunting leases, guiding and business lines have proved mutually beneficial. For example, Sandhill Safari jeep tours offered by Calamus Outfitters frequently traverse hills being grazed by Morgan Ranch cattle. This offers the opportunity to not only educate visitors about grazing management but also to showcase the specialized Morgan Ranch American Wagyu Kobe beef (www.morganranchinc.com).
For Sand Hills ranchers, keeping their treasured way of life is sacred. For the Gracie Creek Landowners, honoring tradition while being open to new ideas has enabled them to embellish the ranching custom of good stewardship toward the land. Indeed, without ranching, the Nebraska Sand Hills would not be the haven for grassland birds and other species it is today. These families desire to keep the prairie here intact, native and diverse. Each operation is multi-generational, with two of the three hosting four generations currently living on the land. It is their hope that their children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to ranch here, as well as enjoy the abundant wildlife the area boasts. By partnering with birds, it now looks more probable than possible.