The Hubbard Fellows (Brandon and Emma) went with me this week to The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch in the far northwest corner of Nebraska. It’s a property I don’t visit nearly often enough, and every time I go I promise myself I’ll go back again soon. I’m not very good at keeping that promise so far but I’m going to keep trying.
Cherry Ranch is located south of Harrison, Nebraska in the ‘high plains’ – at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s a mixture of shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie that receives an average of 15-16 inches of rain per year. The upper reach of the Niobrara River flows through the ranch, providing moisture for some wet meadows in the bottom of its valley, but most of the surrounding prairie is high and dry, with lots of exposed sandstone formations.
I’m an ecologist, not a botanist, so I try to keep up with plant identification but can get quickly out of my comfort zone when I stray too far from the Platte River Prairies and my family prairie. I know more 99 percent of the plants I see along the Platte and about 90-95% in the Nebraska Sandhills, but that probably drops to something around 65 or 70% in the panhandle. The diversity of little plants on the rock outcrops at Cherry Ranch and similar sites are even more difficult, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love looking at them.
However, while I think my plant identifications in these photos are right, I’m certainly not guaranteeing any of them.
We caught both a sunset and a sunrise at the ranch this week, taking advantage of some nice photography light (though it was windy). I took several thousand photos and ended up with about 130 that I really liked. It wasn’t just a photography trip, though, so we spent quite a bit of time talking ecology and management with Travis Krein and his ranch hand Lee. Travis manages the place for us and is one of those people who is more impressive the longer you talk with him.
The first thing we looked at with Travis was a stretch of the river where he and Lee have been experimenting with cattle grazing to suppress invasive cattails – something that was Travis’ idea to try. (It’s working well and we talked about some potential variations to try next.) We also had long conversations about bird habitat, invasive species, fencing and grazing approaches, and lots more. I came away feeling both awed at his knowledge and a little more insecure about mine.
It was pretty windy for insects, so I didn’t get to look for bumble bees as I’d hoped, but we still got to see some wildlife. There were mule deer and pronghorn around, as well as nighthawks, lark buntings, grasshopper sparrows, and lots of other birds. A big common snapping turtle was warming itself up along the banks of the river and I spent some time photographing a colony of cliff swallows nesting on a sandstone cliff. It was a treat to see cliff swallows nesting somewhere other than the underside of highway bridges, which is where most of them seem to hang out these days.
Cherry Ranch is a working ranch with no infrastructure to host the public, so it’s not open for hiking or other uses. I’d like to find a way to facilitate some visitation at some point in the future because it’s obviously a gorgeous site, but it’s tricky given the remoteness of the place and a lack of nearby staff. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to get out there more often and share photos and stories with you as a meager substitution.
If you like the look of this landscape, though, there is a lot of public land in the panhandle that’s worth visiting. Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson State Park, Toadstool Geological Park, the Ogalala National Grasslands, and the Wildcat Hills are just a few examples. Those sites contain a combination of grasslands, badlands, ponderosa pine ridges, and other habitats that many would be surprised to know exist at all, let alone exist in Nebraska. I highly encourage you to explore them!
Don’t forget about the upcoming events at the Platte River Prairies in July! The first will be a public field day on July 9 for anyone who wants to learn more about prairie and wetland ecology. The second is a workshop on conserving fragmented prairies on July 25-26 that is aimed at biologists working in grasslands. Both are free of charge but we’re asking for people to RSVP. Information can be found in the embedded links within this paragraph. Hope to see you there!