15 October 2010

Conservation Management Ongoing on Refuges in the Northern Sandhills

It is refuge week for these area, managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the conservation of fauna and flora, and at the refuge complex in the northern sand hills, conservation efforts continue unabated.

Though there were not any particular events scheduled for refuge week, the theme nonetheless fits with the ongoing efforts to achieve the recognized goals for the refuge complex, which includes Fort Niobrara NWR, Valentine NWR and Seier NWR. The staff continued their regular endeavors to accomplish resource conservation and management.

During this week is the annual bison sale at the Fort Niobrara NWR. With the annual mid-October bison sale underway, this event was foremost in the comments about recent management activities. The buffalo have been gathered and some are ready for sale, as they have been for decades. This refuge has been managed since 1913 for birds and bison, with the big buffalo an essential aspect in maintaining the prairie landscape and its associated biota.

"It has been a great season for the bison herd and their management," said Steve Hicks, manager of the three-refuge complex. The herd was recently gathered and surplus animals are being auctioned to the highest bidder. The management is focused on maintaining a quality herd.

Elk at Fort Niobrara NWR; June 25, 2007.

"Fort Niobrara NWR has a couple of established purposes," Hicks said. "Those are as a preserve and breeding grounds for native birds, and a game preserve especially for bison and elk. Refuge biologists and managers have set target big game populations of 350 bison and 70 elk. Bison and elk are then used to graze the refuge grasslands in a way that will provide optimum habitat conditions for native birds. Grass typically needs some sort of stimulation to grow well. When applied properly, grazing, fire and mowing are types of stimulation that help grass grow and provide quality habitat for many species of animals."

Notable for this year, the Fort Niobrara bison herd was combined with a herd, originally from Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, to preserve the genetic diversity of the animals, Hicks said. "A larger, combined herd will improve management opportunities."

Elsewhere on the refuge complex, efforts continue to improve habitat for the protected flora and fauna of the Niobrara River and regions within the sandhills.

Hicks indicated several prominent activities.

At Valentine NWR with its many lakes and upland prairie, there has been ongoing removal of unwanted and invasive cedar trees. This has also occurred on the Fort Niobrara NWR and is planned for on the Seier NWR. Cedars are not a preferred type of vegetation for these refuges in an area where prairie grassland is the predominant and preferred type of habitat.

"On Valentine NWR cedars once dotted the sandhills north of the Hackberry Lake and South of the Pony Lake," Hicks said. "On Fort Niobrara NWR, cedars have been removed from much of the area along the Niobrara River from Cornell Bridge south to the refuge boundary."

Several fire burns have been done to facilitate the growth of native prairie vegetation: 1605 acres of Valentine NWR were treated this last year; and 547 acres at Fort Niobrara NWR. A carefully managed grazing program is also used to promote the grasslands' vigor at Valentine NWR.

Among the many wetlands on the Valentine refuge, Calf Camp Marsh has been managed with a focus on lower water levels, which provides shallow water habitat preferable for a diversity of bird species, Hicks noted.

Notable for Seier NWR has been an end to the legal considerations for the family trust associated with the donation of the former ranch property which occurred in 2000.

The legal situation regarding the Seier family trust "has been cleared," Hicks said. This will allow the F.W.S. to undertake more management activities on this Rock County tract of 2400 acres. Particular focus will be given to fixing water wells, promoting livestock grazing beneficial for grasslands, removing invasive growths of cedar trees (especially on the eastern extent of the refuge lands) and subtly, yet distinctly, erecting a marker to recognize the contribution of Louise and Jon Seier to create the national refuge.

The trust fund will provide about $20,000 annually, which can be used for refuge management activities, Hicks said, noting that this is the only trust of this sort he is familiar within the F.W.S.

A shortage of funds is notably limiting some activities on the refuge areas, Hicks said. There were no special activities scheduled for refuge week because of the lack of funding and a shortage of staff to develop and promote events which would connect people with nature, and ensure the future of conservation, which are this year's theme.

The Seier NWR comprehensive conservation plan was expected to be developed in 2011, but is now expected to be prepared in 2014, along with similar plans for the Fort Niobrara and Valentine refuges.

One notable bit of information which would be helpful for refuge management would be a better understanding of resident and migratory birds.

"We would like to have bird surveys of the unique habitats in the biological crossroads along the Niobrara River and at the wetlands of the southern refuges," Hicks said. And any other information on bird occurrence would be appreciated and helpful in developing future refuge management plans.