Wind weaves itself through the tall grasses and over the rolling hills of the Nebraska Sandhills. A lone pickup truck follows a two-track trail across the prairie. As it crests a hill, its occupants gaze out at a landscape that has been changing over the last 30 years. When people first settled in this area, the Eastern Red Cedar could only be found in a select few areas. Today many of the vegetative dunes are covered in scattered trees. The spread of trees into the grasslands have resulted in a decrease in grazing land for livestock and habitat for the greater prairie chicken and other grassland birds.
Mark Dwyer and his wife Julie have lived and ranched in the Sandhills their entire lives. Both grew up in Wheeler County Nebraska and have always been friends. It was only natural that after marriage, they continue ranching on Mark’s family property, which has been in the Dwyer family since it was homesteaded by his grandfather and grandmother. He has seen an increase in cedar trees on his property in the last 20 years. “We started controlling cedar around 20 years ago. We built a tree saw that was mounted on the back of a four-wheeler. Our son did a lot of work cutting trees for us,” comments Mark. The Dwyers have always managed cedar in their pastures and have not had to decrease livestock numbers. They did however have issues with the watering capabilities on the ranch and the ability to support cattle during the grazing season.
Mark had initially contacted the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to sign up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This federal cost share program helps ranchers and farmers implement conservation practices, such as cedar removal, prescribed grazing, and native plantings on private property. Mark wanted technical as well as financial assistance in increasing the livestock watering capabilities of his ranch. Originally the upland sandhills portion of his ranch was divided into three section-sized pastures that included one windmill per pasture. For small cattle herds in a season-long grazing system this would be enough; however, Mark wanted to transition into a rotational grazing system and better utilize his grazing resource with a single cattle herd.
Mark met with Kraig Beck, a soil conservation technician in the Spalding NRCS field office. Kraig did a site visit and mapped out cross fence as well as tank, pipeline, and well locations, with input from Mark. The project was expensive and funding priorities in the area were geared toward crops and native plantings. The project did not receive funding. However, Kraig reached out to other conservation partners in the area that share an interest in helping ranchers deal with natural resource concerns. The Sandhills Task Force, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program (USFWS), and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) agreed to help fund the project. Funding was also made available from NRCS through a Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) special funding pool that became available in 2017 after the Nebraska Cattlemen, and a host of other partners, submitted an application to NRCS Headquarters that resulted in the Eastern Sandhills being designated as an area to receive special funding made possible by the Farm Bill. In Nebraska, this program provides cost share to ranchers who would like to improve the health of their rangeland for mutual benefit to the wildlife and livestock through prescribed grazing and the removal of cedar trees (www.nrcs.usda.gov). Ryan Lodge, the Working Lands Coordinator for Nebraska, with Pheasants Forever, has lived and worked in the Eastern Sandhills for over 12 years. He is an avid hunter and has witnessed the decrease in grassland bird populations as a result of the increase in cedar encroachment. “The greater prairie chicken doesn’t do well after woody encroachment, such as the Eastern red cedar. These birds prefer landscape with less than 5% tree cover,” specifies Ryan. Habitat fragmentation especially is detrimental to the greater prairie chicken because it affects all aspects of its lifecycle, including breeding, nesting, and brooding. Since its beginning in 2017, WLFW program, and the partnering organizations, have helped 28 private landowners and impacted over 34,500 acres.
Back in Wheeler County, Kraig facilitated a conversation between Ryan and the Dwyers, and the project was re-planned based on input from the NRCS, Sandhills Task Force, USFWS, and NGPC. By teaming up with partners, the WLFW program can fund more projects and help more landowners. So, not only was the grazing system funded, but also the removal of the scattered cedar trees that had been encroaching onto the property. “We’re grateful. Everything happened so quickly [after that initial conversation],” exclaimed Julie. The property now boasts an upgraded well, 22,400 linear feet of pipeline, six new steel bottomless water tanks, and 5,400 linear feet of cross fence. The pastures are also free of eastern red cedar. “[The installed system] is going to take away a lot of the stress due to watering concerns over the summer months. We are not so dependent on the wind.
The pastures are also being utilized not just for cattle grazing, but for the protection of insects and birds. Learning about those things has been the fun part of the process,” says Mark. By changing from a season long grazing system to a rotational grazing system, the Dwyers can not only graze more cattle but can also create heterogeneity of plant species and structure across the landscape. In a rotational grazing system pastures will be grazed at different times of the year, which results in different plant heights and structural classes throughout the whole ranch. Pastures where livestock grazing has recently occurred will have shorter grass than un-grazed pastures, where grasses will be taller. This provides breeding, nesting, and brooding habitat for the greater prairie chicken all within a relatively small area. It also provides many different types of habitat for all kinds of wildlife, such as the sharp-tailed grouse, American burying beetle, monarch butterfly, grasshopper sparrow, and upland sandpiper.
The project with the Dwyers is an excellent example of a conservation project that benefits both the rancher and the Sandhills grassland-wetland ecosystem. Delivering these types of projects is a major goal of the Sandhills Task Force. The Sandhills Task Force is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1993. The 16-person board is made up of 9 members who primarily make their livelihood from ranching and 6 members who work for an agency partner, local government, or conservation organization. All projects are planned and implemented with willing participants on a voluntary basis and are funded by grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as from partnering agencies and the landowner.
For Mark and Julie, being good stewards of the land is a priority. Their goal is to the manage their ranch not only for the grazing livestock, but also for the health of the wildlife. Cedar control will always be an issue and in working with the Sandhills Task Force, NGPC, USFWS, and NRCS, they have signed an agreement to continue with cedar management and prescribed, rotational grazing to provide long term benefits for the greater prairie chicken and other sandhills wildlife.
This project was made possible by the Sandhills Task Force, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands for Wildlife, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Nebraska Environmental Trust. Landowners were also integral partners in this project.