Tours of conservation and stewardship initiatives on the 5,000-acre Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Rock County will be offered to wildlife enthusiasts, conservation partners and others who may be interested on Saturday, June 23. Tours designed for differing purposes will begin at 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m. and at 2 p.m. with each lasting approximately 2 ½ hours.
Major conservation initiatives have been implemented on the property during the past few years. Participants on the tour will have an opportunity to view the ecological benefits of several practices employed.
Control of invasive cedars on native rangelands has resulted in the most dramatic transformations of the property. In addition to expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars to mechanically shear cedars on most of the upland grassland, prescribed burning has been utilized in each of the last two years to eliminate thousands of small cedar seedlings over the landscape and scorch many of the larger cedars on steep slopes and in dense groves. Native prairie plant communities have quickly responded to the combination of mechanical removal and controlled burning, improving the land for both livestock and many species of wildlife.
New fences have been built to reduce livestock trampling impact on some sections of the spring-fed streams (Willow Creek and Rock Creek) to improve water quality and both aquatic and riparian habitat for fish and other associated wildlife. These were built in conjunction with a new watering system that delivers water to livestock tanks on upland areas of the pastures. As an additional measure, wildlife escape ladders were installed in all tanks to provide greater access and safety. Prairie Grouse and other birds require considerably more water during the egg-laying season, and during hot dry periods. Livestock stocking rates have also been adjusted to modest rates to benefit grassland birds and improve “rangeland health.”
Nearly 200 acres of special nesting and brood-rearing habitat for grassland birds has been established on old field sites, along with twenty acres of pollinator habitat for native pollinating insects.
Cedar thinning and other forest stand improvement practices are being implemented within hardwood woodlands within and along the Niobrara River valley. A primary objective is to restore the native woodlands of bur oak, basswood, ironwood and other deciduous species. In some areas an additional objective is to diminish the density of eastern red cedar and retain those with greatest potential for future harvest as saw logs. Cedar posts and poles are being harvested as part of the forest stand improvement practice.
The first tour scheduled from 7 to 9:30 a.m. will be a birding/wildlife and wildflower viewing tour within the sanctuary, designed to highlight grassland nesting birds and strategies for management of habitat requirements. Grassland nesting birds of special interest on the sanctuary include Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Sandpipers, Bobolinks, Long-billed Curlews, Western Meadowlarks, Dickcissels, Bobwhite Quail and native “song” sparrows including Grasshopper Sparrows and Lark Sparrows.
Opportunities to see woodland birds will be included when the tour stops near the Hutton childhood homestead in a scenic oak grove on the edge of the river valley. Ovenbirds and Yellow-breasted Chats utilize the woodland and riparian habitats, but both are secretive and more often heard than seen. Remarkably, in May a pair of Sandhill Cranes have been inhabiting the bottomland wet meadows and wetlands on the sanctuary. Activities in that area are currently restricted to minimized disturbance. They may be members of the Greater Sandhill Crane population (Grus canadensis tabida) that nest in Great Lakes states and the northern Rocky Mountains. (Most of the Sandhill Cranes that gather along the Platte River each spring are of the Lesser and Canadian subspecies, both of which migrate much greater distances to nesting areas.)
The 9:30 a.m. to noon tour will focus on cedar cutting and prescribed burning, with opportunities to view areas that were burned to control cedar encroachment on grassland sites and into ravines within natural deciduous woodlands comprised mostly of bur oak. In some areas the results are spectacular.
LUNCH: An informal light lunch consisting of sandwiches and fresh vegetables and fruit will be available between noon and 1:30 p.m. at the Hutton Guesthouse. Participants who plan to join the group for lunch are requested Sanctuary coordinators know how many in their party will have lunch at the sanctuary. The e-mail address for confirmation is (aok @ audubonofkansas . org). Information about plans for the visitor gallery, management of the two sanctuary guesthouses for visitation and nature-based experiences for families and others at the sanctuary (including establishment of a trail system for guests), and overarching goals and plans for the sanctuary will be discussed.
A tour from 2 to 5 p.m. will include all elements of the morning combined, and possibly extend beyond to additional parts of the sanctuary if conditions allow. Tour limitations may be caused by weather and rain-soaked sanctuary roads or trails.
A 6 p.m. to sunset picnic is planned, and if conditions allow it will be held on a hillside overlooking the river. Alternatively, it will be held at the Hutton Guesthouse. Participants who plan to join the group for the picnic are requested to call or send an e-mail to let Sanctuary coordinators know how many in their party will attend the picnic. There is no charge, but donations will be appreciated. The e-mail address to indicate plans to participate in various aspects of the day’s activities is (aok at audubonofkansas.org) and phone messages can be left at 785-537-4385 until Friday afternoon.
All tours will leave from the Hutton Guesthouse. One of the easiest routes to it is to drive seven miles north of the town of Newport on Highway 137, then five miles west on 888 Road to an intersection with a stop sign, then north slightly more than a mile. Additional details on the location and directions are posted on the Niobrara Sanctuary website at www.niobrarasanctuary.org. Articles on sanctuary conservation initiatives and the guesthouses are featured in pages 24 to 33 in PRAIRIE WINGS magazine at http://audubonofkansas.org/prairiewings/. Additional information on Audubon of Kansas is posted on www.audubonofkansas.org.