Over the next several weeks, Nebraska Children is sharing Field Journals highlighting experiences from Nebraska Children’s Conservation Management Summer Internship program. Building on last week’s blog, we pick up with Dakota Staggs and our group of youth from Native Futures as they travel across the state.
Stop 2: Rowe Sanctuary
If you have ever seen what Midwesterners call “the last great migration” — that of the Sandhill Crane — you were probably at or very near the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. Just a few miles east of Kearney, right next to the Platte River, this sanctuary serves a vastly important role in the protection of hundreds of species, including the famous Sandhill Cranes. We did not have a long stay here, but we packed it full and learned as much as we could!
Upon arrival, we were introduced to Cody Wagner, one of only two conservation biologists tasked with maintaining more than 700 acres of native prairie habitat in the 1,400+ acre sanctuary — not an easy feat. That’s where we came in! Our day started with a tour of the prairie and then the Audubon Center, learning about the habitat around the Platte and the species it houses. We were each surprised to learn the history of the Platte in this area and its former breadth — by our perception, it was not a small river as is; however, it currently only runs with about 30% of its historical flow. Cody pointed out the former river banks to us, seemingly miles away, showing just how drastically the land has changed and the habitats of local species have been reduced. After learning the history of the center and purpose for their conservation, we went to work!
Managing such a large expanse of land with demanding tasks in each location, Cody and his co-workers were stretched thin trying to manage invasive species. We joined him in the field to learn about saplings that were growing in the prairie and could choke out the native grasses. It seemed like a counter-intuitive task to cut down young trees in the name of conservation, but as we had learned, it was a very necessary effort to preserve the prairie. After an afternoon of humid and hot work, we cleaned up and Cody took us out on the Platte to canoe (or at least try to canoe…) along the Sanctuary riverbanks. We spent half of our time either stuck on a sandbar or in the water pushing the canoe around one — shout out to Hunner for pushing a bunch! Cody took us onto a few of the bigger sandbars and showed us tracks from countless birds and even coyote and (what we thought were) otter tracks. This was the perfect way to have fun at the end of a hard day’s work while also seeing the purpose behind that work and learning about the species in need at the Sanctuary.
I won’t take up all the fun telling you about the conservation sites, so I will let you read what Kyann has to say about Ponca State Park, Fontenelle Forest, and The Arbor Day Farm, but I can’t help but tell you about our last stop at the Abbott Family Ranch.
Last Stop: Abbott Family Ranch
The Abbott Ranch was quite an experience for four guys from the city, and I am sure none of us will forget it any time soon. The Nebraska hospitality was out in full force at the Ranch when we arrived on a Tuesday afternoon and settled in. About 35 miles north of Hyannis, the Abbott Ranch, one of the largest in the state, perfectly embodies the rural Nebraska experience.
We arrived on a Tuesday not long after the ranch crew had returned from branding. We set our things where we were staying for the night and spent some time getting to know Chris Abbott, a fifth-generation rancher. His family had ranched here since the late 1800s and had been ranching for two generations even before that. The history of the land and the lifestyle was unique for each of us to see, as the closest we had been to cattle was at the dinner table. Chris uses a small plane to fly around the ranch and spot the free-range cattle to help direct his cowboys. Caleb was quick to volunteer when he offered a ride, and I don’t blame him. When they landed, we all went over to the cook house, ate dinner with the whole crew, and called it a night since we had to be at breakfast at 6 and into to the ranch at 6:30.
Wednesday morning, we groggily pulled ourselves out of bed and went to breakfast to hear just how much we were in for. The group left together in the bed of an old ’70s military truck, which was about as comfortable as you would imagine, but still better than walking. The ride out was mesmerizing. This was my first trip to the Sandhills and I know the boys didn’t get outside town very often, so it was new to all of us. The rolling hills with patches of sand and others of grass were beautiful. After a few miles, we pulled up next to a temporary pen with a few horses in it, so we jumped out and after the horses were saddled, we rearranged the pens to create a funnel to heard the cattle into. Once that was set, we hid. None of us wanted to be the one to spook a calf away from the pen and make someone else chase it down.
The cowboys rode out, and about 20 minutes later, a herd of cattle came over the ridge and were worked into the pen. The cowboys then separated the calves from the cows, counted them, and set up the forks: our job. The forks were pieces of equipment that had been made to catch the calf in such a way that it could not be hurt and so that it could not hurt us. Once they were set up, the boys each grabbed a fork and held down a corner of the pen to make sure no calves ran out. We took turns with the corner position as we got worn out (and so I couldn’t chicken out). Caleb, Collin, and Hunner were naturals. They did not hesitate to grab the calves and go to work and were especially impressive in grabbing them if the fork missed — something they were praised for many times by the ranch staff. After 488 calves in the first day, the herd was finished, and we went home, quickly falling asleep after some much-needed showers. The next day was more of the same, with 406 calves. As you can imagine, we were tired. Branding cattle is something that I understand is not for everyone, and cannot be done by everyone, but our group dove in without hesitation. I was a little anxious about tackling a small cow, but I became the student and the guys showed me the way.
The ranch experience was eye-opening. Much of what we did on this trip was manually conserving the land and removing invasive species, but this was an example of how to work the land. In talking with some of the ranch staff, conservation to them means land management. The cattle are an important factor in the landscape and can help keep grasses and plants in check, but if misguided can also overgraze and harm the landscape. This was a new perspective for us and showed yet another facet of conservation diversity and importance. The boys were each praised for their work and offered summer jobs if they needed one and could come back — a high compliment for city kids from the hard-working ranchers. I am confident that this was an experience most people cannot claim, and I know each of the guys and I are very thankful for the opportunity and enjoyed the chance to see this lifestyle and understand conservation a little more.
Stay tuned for the final installment from the Internship Field Journal, where we hear from the ladies of Girls Inc.!