Prairie Chickens Reunite a Nebraska Ranch Family

Bird-watching tours help preserve vital habitat while supplementing family income

Life in the Nebraska Sandhills offers a remoteness not often found in the Lower 48. For Sandhill ranchers, the closest traffic signal can be 50 miles away. Their first-grader may ride the bus ninety minutes to school — one way. Six or eight-player football is common because there are more cows than kids, and getting groceries can take a full day.

But for Sarah Sortum (nee Switzer) the Sandhill prairies are home. And after graduating from university and starting a family in northern Colorado, by 2006 she wanted to move back to the family cattle ranch. Sortum wanted her kids to share her connection to the land.

photo of greater prairie chickenPhoto by Greg Kramos/USFWSThe greater prairie chicken, which is native to the mid-western US and faces threats from habitat loss and fragmentation, has helped reunite the Switzer family in the Nebraska Sanhills.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t just pack up and move home: The 12,000-acre Switzer ranch could not support her parents, her brother’s family, and her own. Sortum’s brother Adam made his move back to the ranch in 2000, starting Calamus Outfitters to generate income for his family. He converted a vacant home to a lodge, initially focusing on attracting hunters. He expanded to offer activities for outdoor enthusiasts, like floating and paddling down the Calamus River, which runs through the ranch.

A decade ago, while watching a sunset, a guest commented to Sortum’s brother and his parents how wonderful the ranch was, but added that it would be great if they had prairie chickens, and even better if they had sharp-tailed grouse. That simple comment changed the direction of the Switzer ranch and provided a way for Sortum to bring her family home.

The Switzers did in fact have greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse on their land. It just hadn’t occurred to the family that the birds would be an attraction. The guest told them people would pay to see them, though the family was doubtful.

But eager to return home, Sortum and her family decided to link their future to bird-watching tourism. Convincing her parents to add bird tours to a cattle ranch wasn’t hard. “They wanted us to come back so bad, they were willing to think out of the box. It was a leap of faith for all of us. We were really nervous,” recalls Sortum.

In 2007, Calamus Outfitters offered its first prairie chicken tours of leks or booming grounds — mating areas of the flamboyant greater prairie chicken, which is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and faces threats from habitat loss and fragmentation.

For most of the year, this bird has all the flash of an accountant at tax season. Come March, however, the males head to booming grounds where they perform an elaborate dance, flashing sunset-orange neck sacs, pounding their feet, and producing a deep drumming sound. For wildlife watchers, witnessing dancing on the lek is like getting triple cherries on a Vegas slot machine.

Now, for five weeks between mid-March and late April every year, ranch guests get up before sunrise and head to one of the school buses that have been parked on the prairie and converted into wildlife blinds. Photographers and birders sit on cold vinyl benches, the bus windows open to the morning air, and wait in the dark for the show to start.

With the stealth of a teenager raiding the fridge at midnight, the male birds slip out of the darkness, spinning and stomping their feet, hoping to intimidate their smaller competitors. A female flying into the lek raises the excitement to that seen on lady’s night in a singles bar. Visitors snap photos and marvel at the ancient dance before sunrise scatters the birds.

Bird watchers return to the ranch for a family-style breakfast and to learn more about the Switzer land, located in the heart of the Audubon’s Greater Cracie Creek Important Bird Area (IBA), the first privately owned IBA in Nebraska. IBAs are sites identified by BirdLife International that have international significance for breeding or migrating bird populations. Less than half of IBAs receive protection, so the Switzer’s preservation of prairie habitat is extremely helpful. In the past, some ranchers have resisted designating protected areas on their land, fearing loss of control, but the Switzers’ believe that what helps the birds helps their ranch.

After breakfast, guests can accompany Sortum on her ranch tours to see how they manage grasslands. “Since we started our tours our ranch management has changed to really benefit the birds,” she exclaims. “We get a lot of satisfaction out of enabling people to come and see a prairie because we have come to realize how special native prairie is and how scarce it is.

Helping the Switzer ranch succeed are community partners like the World Wildlife Fund biologists who provide tips on range management and Audubon Nebraska, which refers potential customers. Bird watching provides cash in the spring when ranching generates little income. On how important birds are to the family fortunes, Sortum declares, “one month of birding contributes approximately 25 percent of our revenue for the entire year on the Calamus Outfitters side!”

Each year more and more travellers make their way to the Switzer Ranch to see birds. And in 2012 Sortum launched the three-day Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival with guest speakers and extra educational offerings for the keenest of bird watchers.

The popularity of the greater prairie chicken has surprised even Sortum. “These birds have done a lot for us. Who would have thought that these little birds would contribute to our quality of life but they are. We have just fallen in love with home all over again in this new way.”

And the birds aren’t just supporting the Switzer ranch; they are helping the local economy. Sortum and her brother have five children between them, almost ten percent of the children in the local school. “That’s five kids we wouldn’t have in our little school if weren’t here,” Sortum says of one impact bird tours have had on the community. “People are starting to understand that if you want to live here, you need to think outside of the box.”

Sortum’s children say when they grow up they are going to run the ranch, proving ties between Sandhills ranchers and their land run deep. Asked when she knew her gamble on using prairie chickens to finance her move home had paid off, she pauses, and continues with emotion, “As long as our family is here and we are raising our kids here, we are successful.”

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