Nebraska's Unique Habitats: The Loess Canyons

A view of the Loess Canyons, somewhere between Brady and Morefield, Nebraska. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Andy Moore, Loess Canyons coordinating wildlife bologist (l), and rancher Russ Sundstrom (r). (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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July 18, 2017 - 6:45am

Nebraska is home to many unique and diverse landscapes. The Nebraska Natural Legacy Project seeks to conserve the state’s plants, animals and natural habitats through voluntary conservation work. This story is part of an NET News in-depth report project profiling some of those habitats around the state.

The warm sun shines down onto an expansive ranch tucked up into the hills of southcentral Nebraska, about halfway between Brady and Moorefield. Andy Moore is today’s tour guide. He’s a wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever devoted to the Loess Canyons—one of Nebraska’s biologically unique landscapes.

“And we're actually right on the watershed line between the Platte Watershed and the Republican Watershed. So, we're pretty high in the landscape,” Moore says.

The Loess Canyons comprise about 340,000 acres of silty soils, which long ago eroded into narrow gulches and steep canyons. The major economic and commercial land use here is in grazing cattle, mostly cows and calves, says Moore. “Most of it is too rugged to farm.”

As a companion to this story, our 360-production team captured immersive video and audio to give you a taste of these habitats. You can view these on your smartphone or on your desktop. For desktop viewing, we recommend the latest version of the Chrome browser for the best experience (Safari and older versions of Internet Explorer do not support 360 video at this time). And we also recommend you view with headphones to get the full effect of the 360 audio. 

The ranch we’re on today belongs to Russ Sundstrom, who’s down the hill opening a gate to let his cows move from one pasture into the next. The cows are hungry, and lowing loudly.

Moore says Sundstrom manages his land differently than some others do—to the benefit of his cows as well as native plants and animals. Sundstrom’s family has deep roots in this area.

Moore points down the hill. “Do you see how Russ' longhorns are all bunched up here in a big group, in a relatively small pasture? And then across the fence you can see the neighbors' cattle. They're sparse and spread out. Russ' grazing system is very unique,” Moore says. “He'll graze an area pretty hard and really set back the plant succession, and then he'll move them out of there.”

This grazing method is called mob grazing, and more closely mimics how bison would have grazed historically—intensely in one area, then moving on. 

“It also makes for a very good wildlife habitat,” Moore says. “That pasture, that area, will get rest for up to a year and a half, which allows the main forage plants, like big bluestem, to come back very strong.”

Three of the at-risk species in the Loess Canyons region: (from top) the regal fritillary, the American burying beetle, and the greater prairie chicken. The Nebraska Natural Legacy project seeks to "to refine and implement a blueprint for conserving Nebraska’s flora, fauna and natural habitats through the proactive, voluntary conservation actions of partners, communities and individuals."

(Photos courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

Many grassland birds, including at-risk species like the burrowing owl and greater prairie chicken, depend on the native mixed-grass prairie and shrubs for nesting and thermal cover in the winter. The landscape here is rugged and open, rolling hills of green. Some canyons have small stands of hardwood trees in the draws, and thick stands of eastern red cedar trees are visible in the distance. Moore says those cedar trees have been the main challenge for the last few decades. Cedar trees reduce the amount of pasture available to cattle.  

“With a lack of fire, cedar trees tend to take over. Some of the properties in this area are up to 70 percent covered with cedar trees,” Moore says. “So, the main challenge is trying to reduce cedar trees. And the best way to do that is through prescribed fire.”

We hop in the truck to continue our tour of the property, talking as we drive. The Loess Canyons are also home to the endangered American burying beetle. Moore, who works with landowners on conservation projects, says when ranchers found out they might have an endangered species on their land, initial feelings ranged from anger to fear. But the beetle’s conservation has brought in a lot of money to help area landowners with things like tree cutting, burning and deferred grazing. Moore says over time, that’s changed minds.

“I think a lot of landowners are okay with the beetle, and some are even proud that they have an endangered species on their property,” he says. Rancher Russ Sundstrom agrees.

“I was probably intimidated at first, but it's all been a win-win for everyone, I think,” Sundstrom says. “It's definitely been a huge, huge learning experience for myself.”

He says the beetle’s conservation opened his eyes to different management practices. He uses a variety of tools to manage his land: rotational grazing, cross fencing, prescribed burning, and “lots of tree cutting.” He says a big focus of his is improving soil health. Sundstrom grows pollinator patches, does dormant season grazing, and has been burning his land since 2010.

“For increasing our grass production and shifting the species composition to more desirable grasses, we've had our best success with prescribed burn and the dormant season grazing,” Sundstrom says.

Cedar trees encroaching on pasture in the distance. Cedar spreads easily and reduces pasture available to cattle.

(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Another area rancher very involved in prescribed burning is Mark Alberts.

Standing on a grassy ridge about 12 miles south of Gothenburg, Alberts points to the land below him and says the effects of prescribed burns in the last couple years are clear.

“It's real obvious north of the line. There's no little cedar trees. South of the line that's not been burned, I'm seeing dozens if not hundreds of one and two-foot tall cedars,” Alberts says. He’s burn boss for the Central Platte Rangeland Alliance—a loose group of farmers and ranchers who cooperatively burn each other’s land. Alberts says that’s important in this rough landscape.

“We can't follow fence lines. We have to follow natural barriers, maybe a hilltop, maybe a canyon bottom, maybe a road. If I want to burn my unit, I ask my neighbor if we can burn across him. People are getting used to the idea, and they're seeing the benefits,” Alberts says. And those benefits extend beyond just getting rid of cedars.

“We're promoting more warm-season grass, which is more sustainable to cattle, and also neighbors are working together,” he says.

Moore says voluntary land management from landowners like Alberts and Sundstrom creates a range of habitats that support the plants and animals species native to the Loess Canyons, everything from birds to butterflies.

“Very diverse habitats: everything from large tracts of open grassland to large stands of cedar, mixed grassland, shrubland and then everything in between,” Moore says.

With continued management, those species in this part of Nebraska will continue to thrive.

This story is part of an in-depth report looking at unique habitats of Nebraska, as part of the forthcoming documentary “RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark,” which follows renowned Nebraska photographer Joel Sartore’s quest to photograph 12,000 species and create worldwide awareness about threats facing animals in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania.



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