Community-Supported Conservation: Nebraska’s Sandhill Cranes
Mid-March weather in the midwest can be unpredictable, from deep snow to warm, sunny days - sometimes in the same week! However, each year, amidst uncertain weather and canceled flights, an average of 42,000 people mark their calendars and travel to the southwestern Nebraska to witness one of the planet’s great wildlife migration spectacle, Sandhill Crane migration along the Platte River. This year, I became one of those individuals, weathering eight inches of overnight snow amidst 60 degree days AND had a flight canceled. It was worth it!
Aside from the phenomena of almost 500,000 cranes flying, feeding, and strengthening pair bonds, I was also wowed by how the region embraces this unique event, which results in environmental (planet), social (people), and economic (profit) benefits, known as the “triple bottom line.”
The conditions for success include:
Charismatic species - Sandhill Cranes are big birds, impressive up close and almost impossible to ignore in a large flock, due to sheer numbers and cacophony of their calls. These aspects make cranes accessible for even the most casual observer.
Timing - the migration spectacle occurs outside of the crop growing season, leaving abundant corn stubble and waste grain for the cranes to forage in. These omnivorous birds also prey on invertebrates, providing a degree of pre-season pest control for farmers. Their droppings also provide a free fertilizer on the dormant fields. By the time farmers are planting and harvesting their fields, the cranes have headed north to their breeding areas.
Habitat conservation & education - there are a number of conservation organizations that protect habitat, conduct research, and lead crane tours. The International Crane Foundation, Crane Trust, National Audubon Society, and The Nature Conservancy all play a role in protecting and promoting the species. While much of their efforts are focused on the Platte River and bordering farmlands, private farms play a critical role providing feeding areas for these huge flocks - an important reminder that sustainable conservation involves many stakeholders.
Clear & beneficial economic impact - tourism departments, from cities such as Grand Island and Kearney, to the state level are actively promoting Sandhill Crane migration. According to Kearney Visitors Bureau Director Roger Jasnoch, the six-week migration period generates $14 million in crane-based tourism (KSNB, 2021).
In summary, Nebraska’s sandhill crane migration is successful due to multiple stakeholders focused on a unique wildlife spectacle. While most of us don’t have a front yard seat to one of the planet’s great migrations, we can apply a similar approach to our local conservation goals.
Can you “personalize” your conservation efforts through the lens of a species (ex. Polar bears and climate change). Is there a window of time to focus your campaign or call for action based or can you take advantage of other efforts, such as the Endangered Species Coalition’s Endangered Species Day, which occurs annually in late May. Can you partner with previously untapped audiences to create new stakeholders and increase the resilience within your community? Finally, in what ways, financial or otherwise, can you promote the benefits of conservation to the community, to inspire awareness, and even better active conservation.