Winds nearly unending across lands of the central plains, silently and surely are an influence for constant change to some table lands in prairie Nebraska.
Migrant birds and cranes flew in on spring or autumnal winds - again and again to find a safe haven for some days - during many seasons of centuries unknown to any observer. Native Indians, prominently the Pawnee Tribe, dealt with drastic conditions of weather as they lived and roamed across their territory in cycles tied to the seasonal activities needed for the clans to survive through knowledge of the elders.
Cowboys arrived some five generations or so ago, but fewer than 150 years in historic terms - a relative blink in time. These stock wranglers, and the settlers which followed, knew the depth of serious winds, often as some endless moan of a desolate place or while it spread snow during a dangerous winter blizzard. With endless winds of change, beyond settlement through the decades, the country became part of a big Nebraska county.
In the modern millenium, the winds are considered a renewable resource to satisfy energy demands of a burgeoning national population of people. Developers and government officials have wrought dramatic change for residents on the preeminent table lands in west-central Custer County, west of Broken Bow, Nebraska.
First Generations of History
"When the white man found this location the prairies were covered with buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope, while the prairie chickens, grouse, wild duck, and goose were found in great abundance," according to a book about the counties history. "This was nature's suggestion that the country was suited to stockraising and poultry production, and the demonstration of the years since has justified the prediction. In the early days of Custer county, cattle raising was the only occupation. It indeed was a profitable industry. As early as 1869 the great advantages of this country attracted attention of the cattlemen of the south and east. The territory, well grassed and well watered, was very attractive."
Residents knew the place as Kountze County in 1873.
New Helena was the first place pioneers designated. It was the first official post-office, established June 18, 1875 on the headwaters of Victoria Creek.
"In 1876 Arnold & Ritchie located a ranch on the Loup, a short distance east of Arnold, with 1,000 cattle." "Edward Holway and J.D. Haskell occupied the same ranch formerly located by Harrington. The range claimed by those owning this ranch was the South Loup valley from the spring creek tributary, west to Cedar canyon and the territory north adjoining."
A place now well-known as Arnold was established in April 1877, named in honor of George Arnold of the firm Arnold and Ritchie, a hearty cattle outfit in the area.
"In 1877, the Henry Brothers located another ranch, west of Arnold, with 3,000 cattle. Two Olive brothers, I.P. or "Print" and Ira of Texas heritage, arrived in 1877 to mark the H4 brand on hordes of southern steers spreading across new range. Brother Bob also soon arrived to the flourishing Olive claims of fresh stock country.
All around there claims by other cattle barons, raising steers. Wild cowboys cared for precious stock that freely roam - unfettered like the wind - around the hills and valleys of north-central Nebraska, from the Platte to the Niobrara.
Then more places. The original Lena Post-office of Custer county, was started in 1877 by the Middle Loup river, near the confluence of the Dismal River and the wild horse flats to the southwest. In the summer of 1877, a new Nebraska county, named after the recently deceased General George A. Custer, was officially organized.
One of the first original historic accounts for the county was done by a correspondent that sent in a brief account for the Western Nebraskian newspaper, issued at North Platte.
Notable for these first times when people were names being spread around places newly identified in history. In June the Olives were branding the IR-Bar on their beeves. The Missouri agriculturalist David M. Rankin arrived with cattle to start ranging about the western South Loup, branding the Quarter-Circle M on his steers.
Adding to the sense of the place, rural residents described local people's activities and notable events in their column of community news. Who was around and what were they doing?
Ash creek is one of the first known columns for the county, issued in July 1881 and April 1882 in a county-source newspaper issued at Broken Bow. The Ash Creek news appeared again as "Ash Creek Arrows" from the country between upper Wood Creek and the South Loup River.
Broken Bow, a post office obviously named for an Indian weapon, had its origins in November 1879, though the actual town was officially located and platted in June 1882.
Among the notes of the West Table are details about Letup, established 1880 on the Sandy creek branch of the south Loup. Among the generational notes: "South Loup was submitted name. July 30, 1880. Population to be supplied by office: 90 including children." Its name was soon changed to Delight.
History also tells us: "Merna was established in 1884 and was named after Merna Dunning, a popular girl of that neighborhood. W.G. Brotherton was the first P.M. and is responsible for the name of the town. When the Burlington built into and platted the town, the name remained the same," wrote the Hon. E.R. Purcell on August 13, 1925.
In 1885 Etna appeared on the scene. Further localities known by the pioneers were Anselmo and Callaway, with origins in 1886.
History wrought an identity. Particular places were known to the family, neighbors, and a locality for following generations to learn of. News and information shared a common history passed to young, again and again by various residents on the West Table.
Wehling Family Generations
John C. Wehling and his wife Justine settled in 1885, under provisions of the Homestead Act. "At the time I arrived in Broken Bow the people here told me I was crazy to establish myself on the West Table, as no water was to be had there," was his view according to the family history. The "Die Deutchie Farm," according to Maxine and Ed Wehling, comprised two sections, each with 640 acres.
Monique, a Jersey Giant chicken at the Wehling Place. The couple raise and use whenever possible, locally grown food.
Generations of this family followed, continuing ties to treasured land at the West Table. A son, Charles Wehling married Anna Thanel, of Austria, at Merna in January 1912. "They farmed and raised beef cattle, a milking herd, and crops such as wheat, corn, oats, barley, millet, cane and rye," according to family history. "Never put all of your eggs in one basket," was their adage.
This couple's son, also named Charles married Theresa Roes, in February, 1962. His son Edward, recalls his dad was an innovative farmer, capable of making implements to make a job easier, and had a knack for adding figures in his head, often get the total for groceries, including tax, before a sale clerk could do it using an adding machine. He also enjoyed reciting poetry.
Current residents of the Wehling property homestead are Edward C. Wehling, whom married Maxine Messner, of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania on October 6, 1990. "We received a parcel of land as a gift from Charles and Theresa Wehling," Maxine and Ed Wehling explained in an email, "and cleaned up an old tree claim two miles to the north of the Wehling farm. A well was dug, old trees stumps removed and new trees were planted. A Morton building was erected soon after. We are now building a new home that has a fine view of the vineyards."
The couple planted their first 700 wine grape vines in 2005, growing them for Mac's Creek winery at Lexington. Maxine also hatches and raises guinea fowl, ducks, chickens, and has a permit to hatch and release bobwhite quail and the wild turkey.
Ed Wehling farmed the family land with his father until May, 2006, when Charles passed. "Ed's uncle Vincent and Theresa Gunther were well known for providing sunflower seeds for birds," Maxine and Ed Wehling said. "They bought pick-up truck loads of bird food. When this couple passed on, it was said that the birds of Custer county would now go hungry." Vince also raised pheasants for release into the wild.
"We enjoy seeing birds and wildlife on our property. It is a sign that nature may be the same as the generations before us may have seen. It is that binding connection that you can appreciate those families that farmed before us, and how they respected and cared for the land and creatures.
"We feel that sense of stewardship to maintain the beauty of the West Table as the first Wehling would have seen it so many years ago," they said.
Generations of Whooping Cranes
Whooping Crane families have used playa wetlands during generations unknown. As the habitats have endured and fowl returned to a safe haven, there were no scribes.
An official tally is kept now only for confirmed records during recent decades. The particulars are among the more than 40 Custer County records within the database maintained by the Nebraska office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is part of the Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Project, according to a summary of details for the species.
The first government instance of these big-white cranes in Custer county was October 6, 1966, 6 miles west and 2.5 miles south of Merna, in the West Table area.
Records occur next in October 1981, with one notable sighting on October 11, 1983, southwest of Callaway.
Families of cranes found wet land conditions in Custer County enough of an attraction for there to be repeat visits.
Family tree of a banded Whooping Crane and its progeny, who's history is being studied by Karine Gil, who contributed this lineage diagram.
One particular female crane raised in 1987 and banded as R-YbY, according to an analysis done by Karine Gil, staff ecologist at the Platte River Whooping Crane Habitat Maintenance Trust, brought their first fledgling to the Ansley area in 1993. In 1994, the family group again stopped in the Merna neighborhood. This female, also produced chicks in 1996 and 2004, and is still alive according to records.
Another bird is known to show repeated use of stopover habitat. When a juvenile, RwR-Nil came back to the same place visited when one year old, then returning again as an adult traveling with chicks, Gil explained. Rwr-Nil may have added at least 21 descendants.
"I don't know how many of them could be relatives stopping at Custer county for several generations, Gil said, "but this is the information I'm trying to put together as soon as possible." Her findings will be published in a peer-reviewed ornithology journal.
These two families show a pattern that indicates the migrating cranes will repeatedly use the same place as a stopover, according to Gil's research. On occasion this locality can be used during consecutive spring and fall migrations. "I'm currently processing more records which may indicate that stopover use is not opportunistic and dependent on weather conditions only, as other reports present based on other observations. The information being considered indicates that family bonds, and behavior are also linked to the use of stopover sites along the central flyway."
The federal database denotes occurrences on April 15, 1994, and then on the first day of May that spring-time. More records were vetted for inclusion when the cranes made a stop on the last date for October and the second day of November that autumn. More records kept by the database indicate the basics of times when places each year continually to 1998.
Merna and Broken Bow are common origin points for directions to where the whooping cranes spent some time at critical habitat. Continue to consider the sightings for 2000, 2002, 2003, and in 2007. There were three spring visits by groups of 2, or 3, or 4 in 2008.
Migration corridor for Whooping Cranes in Nebraska.
A center-line for the migratory flyway used by Whooping Cranes through Custer County, is centered through its western half, according to a mapped analysis of confirmed records. This map considers the entire region and a larger set of records showing confirmed sightings during the crane migration. A corridor is given that reflects those times when the cranes came to the West Table.
Generations of Whooping Cranes showed their preference for wetland habitats of Custer County during visit after visit. History of some of the bird families reflects what happened with a few families. But the banding of Whooping Cranes ended in 1988, so it is no longer possible to track movement of family groups to to the extent possible when each bird was uniquely marked.
A Generation of Change?
Hard winds of change are going across Custer County this season. Plans are being made to develop the wind power of West Table. Within the past couple of years, a British-based corporation has been getting land leases, processing an application, and just this year, local officials have been deciding upon local zoning regulations. It is required to install a wind-power development with 70-80 wind turbines.
"We are in the Request for Proposal area for an 80 MW wind project," said Ed and Maxine Wehling. "British Petroluem Alternative Energy wishes to develop the site, and has acquired 8,000-10,000 acres for the project" which surrounds the couples rural home.
"We were asked to host transmission lines and possible turbines for the BP wind project for West Custer County, and later learned of the potential threat the 400 foot turbines could cause to whooping cranes in their flyway that they had chosen and utilized for many years. We were concerned. When we learned of the struggles and challenges the whooping crane has endured in our country through the years, it made us sad that wind turbines could pose another hurdle for their survival. I wondered if I might not get that opportunity to see one from the vineyard, as I had hoped to do one day."
"The approach BP initially used," with Laurie Mazer as a company representative, "was to quietly sign up land leases from our neighbors," the Wehling's explained. "We were asked not to discuss the project with others. Many neighbors are just now learning that a project has been proposed since around 2005, when the first meteorological tower was installed."
"Mazer presented the financial gain and positive aspects of the wind project to us. We feel there has been a lack of education and awareness for our community that would include impacts to endangered wildlife.
Area for proposed turbine project in western Custer County, showing the Wehling property - the black box. Image courtesy of Maxine and Ed Wehling.
"We started to become informed on the potential threat to migrating birds from websites such as www.wind-watch.org and www.betterplan.squarespace.com where we met individuals such as Jim and Cheryl Congdon from Wisconsin, who fought to save the Horicon Marsh habitat from industrial turbines being placed one mile from whooping crane habitat.
At a November, 2008 zoning meeting at Broken Bow, the Wheling's noted that BP representative Laurie Mazer was asked by a commissioner the impact a project would have on whooping cranes.
"We felt Ms. Mazer downplayed the issue, and said it was not an issue. We were struck by this, since we know we have had whooping cranes very near to our home."
"With some checking, we found that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission issued a letter in 2007 to BP's consulting firm, ERM to select an alternative site, due to the endangered whooping cranes. NGPC has toured our area, and maintains that the playas are ideal crane habitat, and that this site is critical, second only to the protected lands of the Platte River area."
On December 9, 2008 there was an informational meeting with Laurie Mazer and Brandy Gibson, of BP, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Although there is no federal nexus for consultation," according to a F.W.S agency official, "the Service attended an information meeting with representatives of BPAE on December 9, 2008, to learn more about their proposed project. At that time, the Service expressed concerns regarding the location of the facility and potential conflicts with migrating whooping cranes."
"Whooping cranes make substantial use of the table land playa wetlands in Custer County, Nebraska," according an email from an FWS official on March 24, 2009. "Most numerous during wet periods, these shallow wetlands with little vegetation and extensive visibility provide ideal roost habitat for migrating whooping cranes.
"Our concern is that the central table playas consistently provide habitat for whooping cranes while on migration. A wind facility among or near these features may cause whooping cranes to avoid using this area, or if they continue to use the playas, there exists potential for mortality due to a strike."
"We are working to establish a process so NGPC could provide input early in their process to hopefully prevent this situation in the future." said Kristal Stoner, a Wildlife Diversity Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
BP applied, and were granted permits for two additional meterological towers in Jan, 2009 from Custer County, during a meeting the Wehling's attended.
The couple continually work to educate people about the wind farm proposal, using personal contact, emails and letters to learn about and tell others of the plan to install wind turbines across the table.
"Our current concern is that, in our experience, BP has been somewhat lax in respecting the recommendations of State wildlife officials, and the F.W.S.," the Wehlings said in late March. "We are concerned that BP will not be prudent regarding the whooping cranes safety and welfare."
"We support alternative energy in our state, and nation, but have reservations regarding a specific wind project proposed by British Petroleum for our area, as the project footprint is right in a migration corridor and more importantly, a stopover site used for many years by whooping cranes."
The couple had a phone conversation with Mark Becker, and biologist Rockford Plettner on March 25th, to discuss project proposals and procedures of Nebraska Public Power District, a publicly-operated utility company.
"We asked how NPPD is regarding concerns for whooping cranes. migrant birds, and other wildlife," according to notes they kept and shared in an email.
"We questioned NPPD on their responsibility for Nebraska sites, and for endangered species, and that they should not simply delegate to a developer in the hopes that the company will do the right thing." The Wehling's said they would re-send all documents for them to review, since a company representative indicated information they had sent previously, was not seen.
"We discussed the recent indications from Karine Gil's work," presented in a talk at the River Conference in March, "that whooping cranes pass stopover information to family cohorts. So any attempts by wind developers to mitigate through creation of other habitat areas may not be beneficial to whooping cranes. We challenged NPPD if it wants to take the risk of a negative perception if whooping cranes are threatened, not just state-wide, but nationally. All in all, we are glad to at least make this a case of NPPD culpability and responsibility for considering environmental concerns."
NPPD will know what plans a developer is proposing once they have submitted an official application, Becker said.
NPPD officials pointed to expectations that Governor Dave Heineman and federal officials want to have 20% wind generated energy. They also mentioned that the Department of Energy has plans for a 765Kv Grid to basically go through Broken Bow, the Wehlings noted.
The RFPs, which NPPD is now accepting are due April 15. One facet of interest to the utility company, is a large-capacity substation near Broken Bow that can provide connectivity to a larger grid to distribute electricity. It would be beneficial to have a turbine farm within a fifteen-mile distance.
Further details indicate federal policy supercedes local authority.
Wind Turbines at the Ainsworth Wind Facility. April 2008, picture by J.E. Ducey.
"Under the federal Public Utility and Regulatory Policies Act of 1878," according to Tim Texel, executive director and general counsel of the Nebraska Power Review Board, "developers of renewable generation facilities at or under 80 megawatts can obtain approval of the facility from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Normally all generation facilities in the State of Nebraska where the output will be sold to third parties must be approved by the Power Review Board. However, once a developer files its information with the FERC and obtains a docket number, the Power Review Boards jurisdiction is preempted and we have no further authority over the facility. The PURPA law also requires the local transmission provider, which appears to be NPPD in this case, to allow the developer to interconnect to the local grid system and either purchase the output or use available capacity to moves its renewable energy. I am not familiar with the proposed British Petroleum wind farm, but the above facts are likely why NPPD informed" the Wehlings in previous contacts "that the primary responsibility for compliance with the Endangered Species Act lies with the developer. Due to the federal laws controlling the issue of renewable energy development, entities such as the Power Review Board and NPPD have limited authority to impose specific requirements on the part of a developer."
Information provided on April 1, in response to an inquiry by the Wehling's, continued:
"It would be quite unfortunate if a renewable energy facility were to be responsible for harming one or more of the few remaining whooping cranes," Texel wrote in an email. "However, it appears that the Power Review Board has no official authority to influence where British Petroleum locates its wind farm."
On April 1st, the Custer County Planning Commission voted 5-1 to approve zoning regulations that designate 1,000 feet as the minimal setback distance between any industrial wind turbine and an occupied residence. On May 6th, the commission will discuss noise and light flicker issues relative to wind turbine farms within the county.
Winds Impose Change on Generations
As the Wehlings work with their 700 vines, winds used by cranes and people working plans for wind power swirl around the futures for the next generations for this country of southwest Custer county.
"Each spring, during pruning of the wine grape vines, I scan the table landscape, and skies, to try to catch a glimpse of a whooping crane," said Maxine Wehling. "Each fall, during grape harvest and post harvest, I do the same thing. So, in a way, for me, the vineyard parallels the whooping crane migration, and each year, the cycle renews itself.
Sky of the West Table, above a vineyard on the Wehling Place.