The Environment


Prairie Fire Newspaper went on hiatus after the publication of the September 2015 issue. It may return one of these days but until then we will continue to host all of our archived content for your reading pleasure. Many of the articles have held up well over the years. Please contact us if you have any questions, thoughts, or an interest in helping return Prairie Fire to production. We can also be found on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you to all our readers, contributors, and supporters - the quality of Prairie Fire was a reflection of how many people it touched (touches).

Whooper Watch Program Puts More Eyes on a Very Important Subject

The endangered whooping crane is a magnificent specimen, standing 5 feet tall and brandishing a wingspan of up to 8 feet from tip to tip. Its migration courses through central Nebraska and is more than 2,500 miles each way. (Michael Sloat)

By Dr. Mary Harner

The sandhill crane migration is upon us in full force in central Nebraska, which means the endangered whooping cranes are soon to follow. Each spring, whooping cranes typically migrate through Nebraska in late March and April on their 2,500-mile journey from wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast of Texas to their breeding grounds in northern Canada. Given this year’s mild winter and spring, however, they may arrive earlier than normal, so it’s not too soon for people to be on the watch for whoopers in Nebraska.

How to Shoot Cranes (Photographically)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

For many decades I have tried to photograph sandhill cranes flying in front of the moon, but during the era of relatively slow color films, this proved to be impossible—the light was never great enough to produce an image worth saving. Digital cameras now often have ISO speeds of 1000 or more, rapid autofocus lenses and rapid-burst exposures, making it feasible to obtain fine moon/crane images.

How I learned Ecology from the Rudeness of Crows

By Jack Phillips

My cold morning walk in a wooded ravine drew insults from local crows. They began with the multiphonic croak-whistle, a sound made possible by unique avian anatomy that equips birds for producing multiple tones simultaneously. The first calls seemed to be a taunt and a test to see if I could somehow understand that the interval between the pitches was actually an opening into a primordial reality, something we call “nature.” I didn’t know what these crazy corvids expected me to do. They quickly added my lack of response to the mounting evidence for human ignorance and proceeded to demonstrate their vocal prowess with an impressive display of ridicule and rudeness.

The Resource Cliff

By Eugene Glock

There has been much talk over the past several months about the fiscal cliff staring the United States in the face if our government could not address the revenue/spending problem. I think that our nation has been moving toward another more serious “cliff” over the past several years. That cliff is the degradation of one of our most precious resources—our soil. Unlike the fiscal “cliff,” which became evident over a relatively short time, we have been moving toward the soil resource cliff for at least a couple of decades. This apparently has been evident to very few people as little or nothing has been done on a national level to prevent us from inexorably moving toward the brink. In fact, our movement toward the brink has sped up dramatically over the past couple of years with the rapid increase in grain prices.

The Cranes Are Here

Migration 2013 has begun, and Nebraska’s portion of the Central Flyway is alive with greater and lesser sandhill cranes, the rare whooping crane, eagles and prairie chickens. Though the cranes are admittedly kings of the season, their vast numbers along the Platte River an astounding spectacle of wings and sound, don’t miss the other amazing natural beauty and wildlife viewing the season has to offer.

Nebraska Bird-feeder Birds: What's in Your Backyard?

A northern cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker, both males, share a feeding station. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Feeding and watching wild birds at a feeding station is one of the most pleasant ways of spending time during Nebraska’s long and dreary winter period. It has become a multimillion-dollar business, and recreational bird-feeding now involves almost one-third of North Americans, or about the combined total of Americans regularly engaged in hunting and fishing. Not only does it provide unlimited entertainment, but can be a wonderful way to learn to identify many of our native birds, often closer than would be possible by simply trying to observe them in the wild.

Of Nebraska’s roughly 350 species of regularly occurring birds, about 100 are likely to be seen during the winter period. The most recent Nebraska winter survey available, the 2012 Great Backyard Bird Count, tallied 104 species. This count totaled over 114,000 birds, from more than 800 locations in Nebraska. Besides typical bird-feeder species, 21 species of ducks, geese and swans and 15 species of raptors were also reported. However, nearly half of the species observed were ones that might be seen at or at least near a typical urban or suburban Nebraska backyard feeding station. Among the typical bird-feeder species seen, the 11 most abundant, in descending sequence, were American goldfinch, dark-eyed junco, European starling, house sparrow, American robin, rock pigeon, house finch, northern cardinal, American tree sparrow, American crow and black-capped chickadee.

Viewing the Cranes

By Brad Mellema

As they have done for millennia, the sandhill cranes arrive in March as a part of their annual life cycle, creating a sight and sound experience that is rivaled by few events on earth. And every year you have passed up the opportunity to hop in the car and travel to the central Platte River valley to see and hear these magnificent birds. Why? Perhaps you’ve been too busy; perhaps you’re not sure where to start. As with any trip long or short, it’s a good idea to know about your subject so you can better know what to expect and how to get the most out of your visit to the area.

A Strong Partnership Protects Interior Least Terns and Piping Plovers

By Angelina Wright

The fate of threatened and endangered species lies in the hands of those willing to go the extra mile to protect and recover their vulnerable populations. Since 1985, when they were added to the federal Endangered Species List, the endangered interior least tern (Sternula antillarum athalassos) and the threatened piping plover (Charadrius melodus) have been relying on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) to restore their populations in Nebraska. The Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership (TPCP) joined the effort in 1999. In addition, since the recovery’s inception, sand and gravel mining companies in Nebraska teamed up with these organizations and have enthusiastically taken an integral role as tern and plover conservationists. Their past and future involvement just may be the answer to ensuring a positive future for these two imperiled species.

A Guide to Central Nebraska

Welcome to Nebraska! While you are in the area for the sandhill crane migration, you may find yourself with some free time between viewings. We invite you to explore all the adventures our state has to offer. The attractions listed here are a sampling of the many opportunities available to enrich your experience in Central Nebraska. For more detailed information about events, attractions, outdoor recreation, places to stay and more, go to

Dancing through Summer School: Sandhill Crane Youngsters in Alaska

By George Happ and Christy Yuncker Happ

The swirling hordes of sandhill cranes that roost in the Platte shallows in March showcase one of the great wildlife migrations on our planet. The birds jostle one another like New Year’s eve revelers in Times Square. Individuals are lost in the mass of bouncing bodies. An alien from space, looking down on such a throng, probably wouldn’t guess that our fundamental social unit is a family. For cranes as for people, understanding the species takes more than gawking at a mob.

We have been privileged to study the social interactions within one particular sandhill crane family. Every April for over a decade we have watched “our” pair of cranes drop from the sky onto our backyard, a snowy bog near Fairbanks, Alaska. These birds, whom we know as “Millie” and “Roy,” left the Platte River valley two to three weeks earlier, as reported for a similar group of Fairbanks cranes followed by satellite tracking (Jason Caikoski and John Wright, Alaska Department Fish and Game). Upon arrival here, the pair vigorously defends their territory from intruding cranes. By comparing photographs of their detailed facial feather patterns and recordings of their unison calls from year to year, we are convinced that Millie and Roy are the same individuals whom we see every summer on our pond.

Forty Years of Remote Sensing in Nebraska, Part Two

By Donald C. Rundquist

This was a period of rapid growth for CALMIT. In 1990 the center moved to new, much larger quarters in W205 of Nebraska Hall. The facilities were constructed with the considerable assistance of UNL Chancellor Dr. Martin Massengale and John Benson, who at that time was the director of institutional research and planning. The space, allocated to CALMIT by Massengale and Benson, was a former study hall of the Engineering Library. An office addition was constructed for CALMIT in 1994, with a training facility added during 1996, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Perry Wigley, director of CSD, and IANR Vice-Chancellor Dr. Irv Omtvedt. Facilities managers supervising activities in the new space included Chris Keithley (1991–1994), Jim Lacy (1995–2002), Jeff Arnold (2002–2003) and Chad Boshart (2004–2006).

In the Path of the Pipeline, Part Two

Runnels of water in the Sandhills, August 2012. (Adrian Olivera)

By William Beachly

After emerging from Otter Canyon, we cross the Niobrara, heading north, and pass Carl’s pickup headed south. We do a “Huey” and catch up with him at his ranch, where an interesting ensemble of antique vehicles peek out from clumps of sunflowers and hemp. He knows we are interested in some pictures over the river and leads us up a sandy road that climbs the high, rounded shoulders of the north bank, offering an excellent view to the west. One cloud in particular doesn’t look like a regular cloud, as it rises directly from the ground and is “anviling” like a thunderhead. It is a cloud of smoke.

The Swans of Nebraska

Trumpeter swans. (Paul A. Johnsgard)

By Paul A. Johnsgard

Because of their immaculate white plumage and their strong pair and family bonds, swans have also long served as icons of beauty, devotion and longevity in the myths and folklore of many cultures. Our personal interests in and perceptions of wild swans are often formed in childhood, by reading such classics as Hans Christian Anderson’s stories of “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Wild Swans,” E. B. White’s “The Trumpet of the Swan” or perhaps upon seeing a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet.

Many of the most admired human traits, such as permanent pair-bonding, extended biparental care and family cohesion, are biological facts in swans, but the sadly romantic idea of a dying swan uttering a final “swan song” is only folklore. Yet, a famous American biologist, D. G. Elliott, reported in 1898 that once, after he had shot and wounded a whistling swan in flight, it began a long glide while uttering a series of “plaintive and musical” notes that “sounded at times like the soft running of the notes of an octave” as it gradually drifted downward. Nowadays such unusual behavior would probably be interpreted as only an instinctive distress call, but might have provided an early factual basis for this commonly used expression.

Replanting Lincoln's Union Plaza

By Benjamin Vogt

I’d intended to go to the opening celebration for Union Plaza, our new downtown park in Lincoln, Neb., last September, but was not able to attend. Instead, I visited a few weeks later, ready to have my breath taken away after seeing it from the O Street bridge—a real, bona fide park in downtown Lincoln. Fantastic. But stepping out of my car I was surrounded by concrete. There was a lot of concrete ahead of me and, if I squinted just right, I could almost make out some green in the distance. It was an auspicious start.

I walked the paths made wide enough for strolling families and passing bicyclists—the latter is what I have most experienced here, a safe thoroughfare for two-wheeled pedestrians. Union Plaza is rather dull and lifeless, cold and industrial. A few modest planting beds grace the margins and will some day fill in, but the expanse of drought-tolerant native buffalo grass leave much to be desired. There’s no nature here. No reason to visit. No reason to stay. Granted, this may not be a sunken garden, but it sure isn’t a park; it especially isn’t the prairie, as tiled murals along the west walls would like to suggest.

Forty Years of Remote Sensing in Nebraska

By Donald C. Rundquist

“Remote sensing” can be defined simply as the science and technologies associated with the analysis and mapping of data collected by means of instrumentation (or sensors) that are carried on various types of “platforms” (such as field vehicles, aircraft or satellites). The sensors operate at a distance from the target of interest and therefore are nondestructive in the manner in which they collect data. The sensors also operate within one or more parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes commonly used forms in remote sensing such as visible light, infrared and microwave energy. Thus, even ordinary aerial photography constitutes one type of remote sensing, although many much more advanced technologies are available today.

The 20th Anniversary of the Environmental Trust Fund

By Ben Nelson

Born and raised in McCook, a small town in rural Nebraska, I have always tried to be a good steward to our land, air and water. I think most Nebraskans who have a rural background have a deep commitment to the environment. It may come from our dependence on the land for everything we have in a richly agriculture state that has some of the most beautiful, pristine scenery in America.

I believe our respect for nature is one of the reasons Nebraskans have so much common sense. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” Those are the words of Albert Einstein, and they certainly apply to Nebraskans and our care of the environment.

To protect and preserve Nebraska’s environment, I worked diligently with the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, natural resources districts and others to establish the Environmental Trust Fund, which I signed into law as governor to fund environmental projects.

Looking back to that time I can truthfully say it was one of my greatest legislative accomplishments during eight years as governor and 12 in the United States Senate.

Twenty Years Ago: How the Tobacco Lobby Nearly Smoked the Environmental Trust

By Randall Moody

This is a story of treachery, deception, luck, timing, courage and power politics. In other words: how a law is made. It is a recounting of the process and behind-the-scenes maneuvering that resulted in the creation of the Nebraska Environmental Trust during the 1992 session of the Nebraska Legislature. This essay is gleaned from a written “after-action” report I prepared then for my lobbying client, the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, legislative records and from my own, admittedly faulty, memory. Some names are left out to protect the guilty.

By most accounts, the Environmental Trust, funded by the Nebraska Lottery has been a great success. According to the trust, “Over [the past 19 years] $189 million in grants has been given to more than 1,300 projects that have improved Nebraskans’ lives in the name of conservation.”

It was created “to conserve, enhance, and restore the natural physical and biological environmental environment in Nebraska, including the air, land, ground water and surface water, flora and fauna, prairies and forests, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and natural areas of aesthetic or scenic values,” according to the authorizing legislation.


Immigration in Nebraska

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