Unique for the Cherry County area and its natural heritage is the Venderplog Ranch, located south of Valentine and at Schlegel Creek.
Marvin and Martin Vanderploeg have conserved many hundreds of acres here and southward along Highway 83.
Marvin came to Cherry county in 1983, first residing near Sparks, after retiring from Dow Chemical in Michigan. He wanted to get some grouse for his stuffed bird collection.
He moved to the Niobrara valley in 1988. The first 500-acre purchase was followed by others, as his son Martin Vanderploeg was a successful businessman in computer software, making it possible to buy additional parcels as they became available for purchase.
Marvin retired for good at Niobrara place. For a while he raised exotic birds, including ostriches. He’s always enjoyed wild birds. A pond at the place, built in 1998, is attractive to various sorts of ducks. Along the river bottom, wood ducks appreciate the natural setting.
A marsh provides habitat for the trumpeter swan. A pair showed up in 2004, and then started nesting two years later, Marvin Vanderploeg said. He's kept a list of waterfowl present on the place, based on records kept during recent years. A pair of Bald Eagles have been nesting; many Wild Turkeys appreciate the wildlife haven. More than 85 species of birds are known to occur among the diversity of habitats.
The plant communities indicated by the specialists in 2009 were: "dry ponderosa pine open woodland and savanna, dry upland bur oak woodland, freshwater seep (marsh-type), green ash-elm-hackberry canyon bottomland woodland, ponderosa pine forest, sandbar willow shrubland, Sandhills dune prairie, Sandhills mesic tallgrass prairie, threadleaf sedge western mixed-grass prairie, western sedge wet meadow," according to a botanical report. Schlagel Creek flows through, and has trout, while other wetland seeps provide year-around water for the marsh.
More essentially, he gave attention to land management. Starting in 2005, invasive cedars began to fall as a removal effort was initiated. There have been more than 250,000 trees with a diameter of more than 2.5 inches subsequently removed since then, he said.
Not all of the red cedar trees have been cleared. There is a different strain that has been left in place, especially along Schlagel Creek. Additional trees have been kept to provide a food source for migratory birds.
"Removing cedars is very expensive," he said. "It is kind of like we had to buy the place twice" due to the ongoing costs. Also being done is a thinning of pine trees.
Every few years, professionals are hired to conduct controlled burns to improve habitat conditions of the grasslands.
These efforts have improved the condition of the woodlands and grasslands, and more resilient if there is a wild fire.
The results are "much better than ever expected in terms of attracting wildlife," Marvin Vanderploeg said. "The prairie has a lush growth of warm season grasses" instead of the once predominant cool season grasses. Even now, Marvin continues to have work done to thin the pines.
There are no livestock grazing on the property. A portion of the ranch along the Niobrara has a conservation easement, which includes property of an adjacent neighbor.
Nearly every day, Vanderploeg especially watches the wild birds, whether it is from his residential vantage for the pond just to the south of the house, or elsewhere on the property. During the years, he has ventured to watch birds at Alaska, Costa Rica, Argentina and most recently Ecuador in December 2015.
Special features of the ranch are its place names. They include going from east to west along the southern extent of the river valley, 17 canyons, including Sport Canyon (east of the Schlagel), Two-log Gulch, Dari Canyon, Glen Canyon, Glen-Laura Canyon, Laura Canyon, Ben Canyon, Dania Canyons 1 to 3, J and R Canyon (for Jordan and Ryan Ross that have been clearing away the trees for the past ten years), Molly Canyon, Martin Canyon (named after Martin Vanderploeg), Isabel Canyon, Canet Canyon (initial homesteaders) and then The Island, where wood ducks congregate. Indian grass meadow has a lush growth of this tall, warm-season plant.
Many of these names are tributes to family relatives and former owners.
On any day’s outing on the ranch a great diversity of lush flora and dozens of wild birds can be enjoyed.