24 February 2009

Sandhills Wildlife Refuge in Management Limbo

Several years since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received an estate donation that established the John W. and Louise Seier NWR, the agency is still awaiting the resolution of legal matters to get started on management activities and to allow the public to access and enjoy the property.

John and Louise Seier donated 2,400 acres of meadows and grasslands at the headwaters of Skull and Bloody Creeks - in southwest Rock County, Nebraska - that had been in the family since 1880.

The ranch is at the center of what was once the historic community of Duff, with a post-office which had been active from 1886 to 1953. Only the small, well-kept cemetery remains as a reminder of a place once active with a store, four schools and other accoutrements of a thriving neighborhood.

Louise Seier made the donation to create the refuge as a legacy to the family, according to a December, 1999 news article.

"We like wildlife and thought it was a good idea to donate the ranch," Louise Seier said, in a gesture on behalf of her and her late brother, John W. Seier, who died in 1997. Louise Seier was born and raised on the ranch property.

On January 1, 2000 the federal agency accepted possession of the property and established a refuge on what had been the family ranch in the eastern sandhills. There were two tracts: one at the upper extent of the creeks, and upland grasslands along the county road to the east.

The property includes the former family residence, a couple of barns and other buildings and sheds typical for a small, though formerly robust cattle ranch in the eastern sandhills.

Habitats include wet meadows at the headwaters of Bloody creek on the east, and Skull creek on the west side. The upland is primarily native sandhill grasses. Around the buildings are numerous trees which provide arboreal habitat, especially for birds. On the south side of the main ranch sections, a row of large, mature cottonwood trees remain from shelter-belt plantings in historic times. During wet seasons, the creek meadows may retain water and provide marsh conditions for a diversity of bird species, especially in 2007, for example.

There have been only a limited number of activities on the refuge due to unexpected constraints.

In the autumn following the donation, refuge officials granted access for a volunteer to conduct bird surveys, by issuing a special use permit. At least 68 different species have been noted as a result of nine surveys at different times during 2000 to 2007, primarily during spring and autumn seasons, and two times during the May and June breeding season, at the main area of the ranch property. The European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, and American Tree Sparrow have been the species noted in larger numbers.

[Wetland at Seier NWR]

Roadside wetland at Seier NWR in May, 2007.

On May 11, 2007, when water levels were higher than normal, a whole new bunch of species were noted at the meadows north of the buildings, along the county road. There were 36 different types noted, including numbers of Wilson's Phalarope, Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Yellowlegs, Canada Goose. Among the 33 types noted in June 2006, a larger number were upland species, especially the Dickcissel and Brown-headed Cowbird. Barn Swallows are always around in the summer, with Chimney Swifts noted to be using the small chimney of the former ranch residence.

Since the original donation, there has been "an ongoing process with the estate funds," according to Todd Frerichs, deputy project leader, headquartered at the Fort Niobrara complex, which also oversees the Seier refuge. "The Seiers also intended to give all assets to the Fish and Wildlife Service to be used for the management of the property once Louise passed," which was believed to be in 2002. The FWS is still "dealing with lawyers to gain access to the estate trust fund."

Resolving legal matters has an essential role in managing the Seier property.

Some of the first expected management priorities, according to Frerichs, are to:

1) "Erect a memorial monument in memory and appreciation of John W. and Louise Seier."
2) "remove cedar from the property"
There is now an extensive growth of invasive cedars in the eastern prairie tracts of the refuge, which the FWS intends to manage as grasslands. The trees will initially be removed by mechanical means, however, controlled burns may also be used.
3) "rehabilitate water wells"
In order to conduct needed grassland management with livestock, reliable water for the livestock is needed.
4) "fix fences," and
5) "work with neighboring ranchers to conduct needed habitat management."
"Historically, native prairie has evolved under occasional defoliation from fire and grazing. In order to replicate this, prescribed fire, haying, and livestock grazing are common tools used to maintain the health of the prairie. Haying and grazing is usually accomplished through Special Use Permits issued to neighboring farms/ranchers."

Most of the ranch buildings are not being maintained, as they have no significant cultural or historic value. A few of the old ranch building may be maintained as infrastructure needed for management, however, the majority will be sold and/or demolished, Frerichs said.

With the intent of providing housing in anticipation for on-site refuge personnel, a home was built several years ago on the refuge.

Subsequent budget cuts, and attention to "higher priorities" within the agency prevented this, Frerichs said.

In 2008, a temporary Nebraska Game and Parks Commissionemployee, as a refuge volunteer, "did some general habitat and wildlife surveys on Seier while living there," before going to a different job after six months.

This year, another employee of the NGPC is living there since early-February.

"We hope to have them do some general work and start a management plan." Frerichs said. Their volunteer time given to Seier refuge efforts, will be "after other duties are accomplished for Game and Parks."

Until legal and fiscal matters are resolved, and a management plan is approved, Seier NWR will remain closed to the public, unless specific permission for access is provided through a volunteer agreement.

"Once we have access to the estate fund, we hope to work out a shared position with the Nebraska Game and Park Commission so we can get more done on Seier NWR," Frerichs said. "General habitat management can occur once the funding is available, however a management plan needs to be prepared, and evaluated by a public review process, and eventually approved, before public use can be allowed. Once this is accomplished, the refuge may be open to some public uses. Management planning is very time consuming. The Fort Niobrara/Valentine NWR Complex (which Seier NWR is part of) is scheduled to rewrite their Comprehensive Conservation Plans in 2014. Seier NWR will be included in this planning process, however, if staff time allows, some of the planning may be accomplished before that."

"We look forward to managing the habitats on the John W. and Louise Seier NWR to support the native flora and fauna typical of sandhills wetlands and grassland," he said.

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