March 31, 2015

Sandhill cranes and the people who love them flock to central Nebraska

NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

Thousands of outdoor birding enthusiasts from around the planet are converging on central Nebraska, with many of them attending Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival in the Kearney area.

Bill Taddicken, with the Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, says the 45th annual event is known around the globe.

“Each year we get anywhere from 50 to 55, 56 different countries represented and all 50 states,” Taddicken says. “It is the only place in the world where this many cranes gets together. Early in the season, you can add a couple million snow geese and other waterfowl to that. It’s just an amazing spectacle.”

Crane numbers are peaking with upwards of a half-million of the large birds along the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island. “This is one of the oldest birding festivals in the country,” Taddicken says.

Most of the events are taking place at the Rowe Sanctuary, just off Interstate 80 south of Gibbon. The main conference kicked off last night at the Museum of Nebraska Art with the poet laureate from Colorado, Dave Mason, who read poems about the land, along with musicians who performed bird migration songs. Today’s activities will focus on a host of educational workshops.

“We have lots of concurrent sessions all day long,” Taddicken says. “Our keynote speaker at lunch is Joe Ryan with the National Audubon Society, talking about climate’s impact on birds and what you can do about it.” The evening keynote address is called “Owls, Soul of the Night.”

Saturday will feature activities from sunrise to sunset with the main event being the annual festival banquet.

The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission reports more than 70,000 people will visit Nebraska to view the Sandhill Cranes over the six to eight weeks of the migration and with that, an $8-million economic impact.

By Brent Wiethorn, KKPR, Kearney


Mule deer population in Pine Ridge drops

Mule Deer herd runs as a helicopter flies above/Photo courtesy of Game and Parks Commission

Mule deer herd runs as a helicopter flies above/Photo courtesy of Game and Parks Commission

Surveyors counted fewer mule deer in the Pine Ridge management unit this year than last, but officials with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission say there might be an explanation for the drop.

Game and Parks has announced completion of the second year of the annual mule deer survey in extreme northwestern Nebraska.

Game and Parks employees used a contracted helicopter to count mule deer in the 429 square miles of the Pine Ridge unit. The count totaled 758 this year compared to 862 a year ago. The lower count, according to Game and Parks, could be attributable to less snow cover during the survey period, February 6th through the 9th. Big Game Manager Todd Nordeen says the data will be more telling when the survey completes its scheduled five-year cycle.

The data will be compared to mule deer numbers in other areas of the state to assess long-term trends, according to Game and Parks.

Wildlife managers have become concerned by a drop in the number of mule deer even though habitat seems adequate and hunting has been restricted. Hunters have not been allowed to kill mule deer doe since 2013.

Game and Parks says it will compared the mule deer numbers with those in other parts of Nebraska to assess long-term trends.

Nebraskans voice (mostly) opposition to WOTUS proposal (AUDIO)

Sen. Deb Fischer presides over panel at field hearing held at UNL

Sen. Deb Fischer presides over panel at field hearing held at UNL

Nebraskans got to voice their opinions about a proposal to clarify the Clean Water Act called Waters of the United States during a United States field hearing held on the East Campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Attorney Don Blankenau of the League of Nebraska Municipalities claimed Waters of the US doesn’t clarify the Clean Water Act, but simply expands the EPA’s power beyond the limits set by Congress.

“Frankly, my testimony in opposition to this rule here today is against my personal interest, because as a lawyer I can guarantee you I will make money if this rule passes,” Blankenau told Sen. Deb Fischer who presided at the two-hour hearing.

Sen. Fischer speaks with the news media afterward

Sen. Fischer speaks with the news media afterward

Fischer brought the hearing of the Environment and Public Works Committee to Nebraska to hear about the impact the proposed Waters of the United States rule will have on state and local governments as well as farmers and business owners.

Testimony began with Assistant Attorney General Justin Levene speculating that if the rule is enacted, federal officials would be granted jurisdiction over bodies of water once left to the states to regulate or not regulated at all since they don’t flow year-round. Lavene, chief of the Agriculture Environment and Natural Resources Bureau in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, asserted the state of Nebraska has carried out provisions of the Clean Water Act for 40 years through the Department of Environmental Quality. Lavene stated the Waters of the United States rule would encroach on state authority.

Chairwoman Mary Ann Borgeson of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners worried about a lack of sufficient definitions and the use of terminologies in the rule. She asserted the Clean Water Act has already caused big delays in public works projects and greatly increased their costs and specualted the rule would only make matters worse.

Nebraska Cattlemen President-elect Barb Cooksley said she understands the rules of the game as administered by the state and operates her ranch near Anselmo according to those rules. She said the new rules as proposed by the federal government seem vague and could well allow federal officials to impose restrictions on ponds not always full and streams that don’t always flow.

Such rhetoric often arises from opponents of the rule and they are off base, according to John Crabtree with the Center for Rural Affairs, who claimed that all the historical exclusions and exemptions contained in the Clean Water Act are preserved in the Waters of the United States rule. Crabtree contended the rule is needed to clarify what he called the chaos and confusion from U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Wes Sheets with the Izaak Walton League of America who once worked as a biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, urged opponents to cooperate with the EPA in drafting a rule that would address their concerns.

“Clean water is exactly the type of issue where a federal rule makes particular sense,” according to Sheets.

Sen. Fischer wasn’t persuaded by those supporting the rule.

“It is clear that imposing additional rules and permitting requirements on farmers, small businesses, and local governments will only create uncertainty, cause litigation and liability exposure and drive up the time and cost of important projects,” Fischer stated.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:55]

Young, male cougar killed by western Nebraska homeowner

U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo

U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo

A young, male mountain lion has been shot and killed in western Nebraska.

Nebraska Game and Parks officials report a homeowner near Whiteclay in Sheridan County reported that he and a neighbor were working outside when they heard growling. The cat, which weighed about 40 pounds, was under the porch.

The homeowner says he shot the mountain lion when it refused to leave. He reported the incident to the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office, which contacted Game and Parks.

Game and Parks estimates the cougar to have been four or five months old. It also appeared in poor condition and likely had suffered injuries earlier.

Warmer weather and little rain means high risk for grass fires

GrassfireWhile many Nebraskans are enjoying the warmer weather, officials say the mild temperatures combined with below-normal precipitation are bringing a greater risk of grass fires.

Jason Whalen, fire administrator at the Kearney Volunteer Fire Department, the state is facing a high-to-very-high risk of fire danger over the next several days.

“We’ve got the warmer temperatures and still a lot of dead and dormant vegetation out there and it’s going to get hotter as the week goes,” Whalen says. “Each day that goes by, the grass is going to get drier. We want people to use extreme caution when doing any work outside that’s going to cause sparks, generate heat or create a fire.”

Whalen warns people to closely monitor the outdoor conditions and use common sense to prevent grass fires. Also, he recommends having a fire extinguisher close by in case things get out of hand.

“Any type of spark can ignite a wildfire,” he says. “A lot of area fire departments have already been out battling these grass fires in the last week or so and it’s going to get more dangerous as the week progresses.”

So far, no counties, cities or municipalities within the state have issued burn bans, but Whalen says that could change quickly depending on conditions.

If you should encounter a grass fire, he says not to try and extinguish it yourself, but instead immediately call 9-1-1.

By Brent Wiethorn, KKPR, Kearney