Photo of the Week – June 14, 2019

The far western end of Nebraska bears little resemblance to the visual image most people have of Nebraska. A combination of geologic forces and climate have joined to create a landscape that appears desolate and/or beautiful, depending upon one’s individual aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of wide open space, maybe because I lived there for part of my childhood. As is true across the state, the panhandle is mostly privately-owned, though there are some prominent exceptions within the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills landscapes, as well as the Oglala National Grassland.

Our staff stands on an escarpment at Cherry Ranch with Travis Krein, the rancher who leases the property from us for grazing. Travis is a smart and thoughtful rancher, who has been a strong partner for us over many years.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, south of Harrison, Nebraska, is a prime example of the beauty and remoteness of the panhandle. The roughly 7,000 acre site supports populations of swift foxes, lark buntings, burrowing owls, and many other wildlife species. Plant communities include sedge meadows and mesic prairie down low and western mixed-grass prairie at higher elevation, much of which is dominated by threadleaf sedge, aka blackroot sedge (Carex filifolia), along with a strong diversity of grasses and wildflowers.

Dwarf Indian plantain (Castilleja sessiliflora) was thriving in large populations on some of the rockiest hilltops.


The site is also bisected by the upper reaches of the Niobrara River, which is considerably smaller there than it is as it passes through our Niobrara Valley Preserve, nearly 200 miles downstream. Most spectacularly, the ranch is characterized by a number of rocky escarpments, which provide both stunning views and distinct plant communities. The site is not currently open to public access, but hosts a number of research projects, as well as a working cattle operation.

The Niobrara River winds aimlessly through the landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch.

A small group of staff visited Cherry Ranch this week to discuss management with our lessee and explore/photograph the various habitats of the site. We had a great trip, full of wildlife and plant observations, the highlight of which was two gallivanting badger cubs that let us watch them for a few minutes. I was disappointed that we didn’t find a prairie rattlesnake, but that sentiment wasn’t unanimous. We spent part of an early evening on the site and then returned the next morning to catch the sunrise. The Fellows will likely have stories and photos to share in the near future, but here are a few of the photos I took during the visit…

Drone photography is really helpful for showing the scope and beauty of the grasslands at the Cherry Ranch.
Cattails are getting a little thicker than we’d like in a few stretches of the river, so we’ll be using some flash grazing by cattle to periodically thin them out. Travis has had success with that in the past, as have many others across the state, including our own experimentation in the Platte River Prairies.
Mary, one of Hubbard Fellows, waits for the sunrise atop one of the rocky ridges.
Early light.
Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) was one of many spectacular flowers blooming at the site. Uncharacteristically, I found myself photographing the landscape much more than individual plants and insects this trip.
I’m pretty sure these are gumbo lilies (Oenothera caespitosa), but there are a lot of Oenothera species out west, though not nearly as many as there are Astragalus species, especially on rocky outcrops!
This entry was posted in Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

18 thoughts on “Photo of the Week – June 14, 2019

  1. I’m glad you got a picture of Tetraneuris. I grew the alpine variety of this species in my rock garden twice. They grew, flowered, then died both times. I should try growing the variety from the plains next time to see if I have any better luck.

    I have had one Tetraneuris torreyana that I grew from seed for many years now. It blooms every year. I am surprised it has lasted so well in my northern Illinois garden since the seed came from Utah.

    People have told me the federally threatened Tetraneuris herbacea is the one that does the best in gardens. The owners of the last population in my state used the site as a place to store coal. Although, a cross with plants from another state has subsequently been reintroduced into other locations in Illinois. I have not tried growing this species, mostly because it is larger than more western species in the genus. I think the whole point of a rock garden is to grow things that tend to stay short. I also make a point of avoiding federally listed species, although I have seen nurseries selling it.

  2. Beautiful images, Chris. And, it’s good to know that TNC has an enlightened partner in landscape management on the ranch.

  3. Those are some wonderful pictures Chris. Didn’t we visit this property after our board meeting at Fort Robinson a few years ago?

    Sent from my iPhone

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  4. Great landscape photos. Really enjoy seeing the such unsuspected sites, and yes, who would think in Nebraska! The same can be said for Kansas. Good to see you last week at NAPC and great job.

  5. Beautiful photography!  I wish I had the chance to explore western Nebraska before I got so old I couldn’t travel.  Your photographs help me appreciate the beauty of the area.  Thanks,  Marge Smith

  6. My heart yearns forever and always to return. And your beautiful work keeps it so alive in my soul.

  7. A couple of these photos remind me of western Kansas, particularly the Monument Rocks area. I found the phrase “Niobrara chalk,” in an article or two, which suggests there is a relationship.This certainly isn’t what I’ve imagined when I think of Nebraska; the photos are beautiful and the urge to travel is strong.

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