And Ashe said it’s hard to keep ranchers — who want to preserve grasslands to feed their cattle — on their land when federal requirements for ethanol production and crop insurance have made it more profitable to raise corn than cattle. “Right now, what we’re competing against is $8-a-bushel corn,” he said. “It’s frustrating, in a sense, because you feel like you’re working against your own government.”
And it explains why the Switzer family, a ranching family that has raised cattle on its property for 109 years, started the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival.
Now in its second year, the festival is a 21
2-day celebration of the grassland birds that conduct one of the world’s oddest mating rituals. Attendees learn the fine distinctions among the species: Greater prairie chickens gather on “booming grounds,” Plains sharp-tailed grouse meet on “dancing grounds,” and lesser prairie chickens get together on “gobbling grounds”; none are actually related to chickens.
After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, getting photography tips and eating a meal of Wagu beef raised on the neighboring ranch, more than 70 festival-goers eagerly get up before dawn the next morning to hide and watch the birds prance about Nebraska’s Sandhills.
Steffi Jesseau, who teaches psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and did graduate work in animal behavior, said she was amused to see so many male prairie chickens competing for a single female’s attention.
“It’s pretty hilarious, like with many species, the females were being coy,” Jesseau said. “The males were quite earnest.”
For the Switzers — Bruce and his wife, Sue Ann, who run Calamus Outfitters with their grown children Adam Switzer and Sarah Sortum — birding tours are an economic necessity. Starting in the late 1990s, Sortum recalled, “I could really see my family struggling financially.”
Twelve years ago, Adam decided to start a hunting lodge on the family’s property to supplement income from ranching. He launched it the same month as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; every guest canceled because it was impossible to travel with guns.
As a fallback plan, the Switzers started taking people on trips down the Calamus River running by their ranch. Then they realized that some tourists were interested in coming on their property in April to see birds dance.
“Now they’re our favorite clientele,” Sortum said. “They’re interested in what’s going on. And they’re willing to pay, which is fabulous.”
The Switzers have become fierce advocates for the greater prairie chicken (“I think they should be the state bird,” Sortum said) and feel an obligation to keep it around.
“We can’t blame the shrinking numbers on anyone else,” Bruce Switzer said. “They live here year round. So it’s our responsibility. . . . It’s our responsibility to save that bird.”
World Wildlife Fund-U.S., which has focused on conserving the northern Great Plains, is working with the Switzers and other ranchers in the region to keep the landscape from being fragmented by farming, oil drilling and sprawl. The environmental group took Bruce Switzer and Sarah Sortum to Namibia to observe wildlife safaris four years ago; now Sortum drives tourists across the Sandhills in an open Jeep.
Jill Majerus, the eco-tourism and conservation officer for WWF’s Northern Great Plains program, said she has learned that “people aren’t going to protect their environment unless there’s an economic tie to it.”
Now ranchers elsewhere in Nebraska and in neighboring states have launched bird tour operations, and other prairie-chicken festivals have started as far away as Texas.
Tom Tabor, eco-tourism development consultant for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, said this sort of activity “has great potential” to generate income in areas where “bird events are going on.”
Even Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who has often feuded with environmentalists, said he became intrigued by prairie-chicken tourism after state officials pitched him on the idea a few weeks ago.
“I knew they existed. I had no idea that it was actually a destination stop,” he said. “I think the state would like to save the prairie chicken, greater or lesser, as long as they keep dancing.”