Stewardship and Ownership
The Niobrara Sanctuary and the Great Plains Conservation Partnership Program of Audubon of Kansas
As expressed by a headline on the sanctuary in the Omaha World Herald January 6, 2006, this “LAND IS A GIFT TO US ALL.” The article by Paul Hammel went on to state that, “As a rancher, Hutton insisted on leaving some grass behind for the curlews, sharp-tailed grouse and other birds that call the prairie home.”
Stewardship of the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary is part of the Great Plains Conservation Partnership Program of Audubon of Kansas, working in collaboration with others dedicated to conservation of grassland birds and other wildlife, protection of the unique Niobrara River Valley and native prairie landscapes. The 5,000-acre Hutton Ranch was a gift to Audubon of Kansas, Inc. in 2002 by the late Lucille Hutton, in consideration of the wishes of Harold Hutton, her late husband, who wanted the property managed as a wildlife sanctuary.
Harold Hutton worked closely with Ron Klataske, West Central Regional Vice President of the National Audubon Society, to win Congressional designation of the Niobrara River as a national scenic river; and separately in pursuit of organizations that would accept the property as the envisioned wildlife sanctuary, along with a number of restrictions designed to ensure that none of the property would ever be sold and high standards of management would be employed. Many organizations, however, did not want to accept property with strings attached. Following Harold’s death, Lucille requested that Audubon of Kansas (AOK) consider the responsibility of accepting title and stewardship responsibility. AOK’s Board of Trustees included members from Nebraska, as well as Kansas and other states, and the board accepted. Executive Director, Ron Klataske, was in a position to articulate the importance of the property. Although AOK is based in Kansas, the organization works throughout the Great Plains and builds on Ron’s four decades of conservation efforts across the region. As an independent conservation organization, Audubon of Kansas is not administered or funded by the National Audubon Society.
For AOK, the banner of “Taking Pride in Prairie” is a fundamental foundation for many conservation, sanctuary and educational initiatives, as reflected in the organization’s mission statement:
The mission of Audubon of Kansas includes promoting the enjoyment, understanding, protection, and restoration of our natural ecosystems. We seek to establish a culture of conservation and an environmental ethic.
A number of notable stewardship successes at the Niobrara Sanctuary have been achieved as a result of the leadership involvement and/or contributions of several Trustees living in Nebraska. As a reflection of their time, talent and resources, two management units devoted to special wildlife habitat improvements are named in honor of Harold W. Andersen of Omaha and Charles Wright of Lincoln. A hiking/horseback trail along and overlooking the Niobrara River will be named in honor of the dedication of Wesley Sandall, another Trustee, when the trail system is completed in the spring of 2011. Wes Sandall served as chairman of the Save the Niobrara River Association in the 1970s and 1980s, an organization which–with his leadership and that of other ranch families, statewide supporters and nationwide partners–was instrumental in stopping the Nordon Dam/O’Neill Reclamation Project which would have dammed the Niobrara and diverted most of the flows from the river at a location 30 miles upstream.
Other Trustees from Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois and nearby South Dakota–including several of whom are involved in ranching or farming–have helped to provide management oversight and guidance for continued improvements. Following a decision to purchase the nearby 160-acre Lazy Easy Ranch with a ranch house that serves as the Lazy Easy Guesthouse, Trustees and their spouses contributed most of the furniture and kitchen appliances needed to make it comfortable and inviting. Other Trustees and friends have made contributions earmarked for purchase of all new bedroom and living room furniture for the Sanctuary’s guesthouses.
It is hoped that a “Friends of the Niobrara Sanctuary” group will be established to further refine improvements, expand educational outreach and visitation, and serve as volunteers and interpretive docents.
AOK honored a five-year grazing lease prior to fully implementing range improvement projects and management changes in 2009. Following years of intensive grazing, most of the grassland (pasture) units were ungrazed in 2009 and 2010 to allow desirable native grasses and forbs to regenerate, and to create additional nesting and brood cover for prairie grouse and other grassland birds.
Several agencies have also been greatly helpful in establishment of wildlife habitat, conservation improvements for rangelands, control of cedar tree encroachment on native grasslands, and measures to protect water quality within the two major spring-fed streams. Programs including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Conservation Reserve Program administered by the Farm Services Agency have become a vital part of Sanctuary stewardship improvements. These management practices and conservation programs are among the opportunities available to other ranch and farm landowners. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Forest Service have also provided habitat evaluations, technical support and other assistance.
Audubon of Kansas has partnered with the National Audubon Society to make major improvements to the Hutton House, which serves as one of the two guesthouses, as well as improvements to the adjacent Visitors Gallery. The Huttons made a generous gift to the National Audubon Society earmarked for improvements that will benefit the sanctuary.
In addition to these partnerships, it is hoped that the sanctuary will help to build appreciation and protection of the Niobrara River, a modest complement to the cooperative efforts of the Niobrara Council and the National Park Service, as well as a goal of other entities, including of “Friends of the Niobrara,” a statewide organization.
To visit AOK’s website, go to www.audubonofkansas.org