Switzer Ranch and Calamus Outfitters first made it onto our radar when mentioned in the March – April 2010 issue of Audubon Magazine (http://audubonmagazine.org/issuearchives/issue1003.html). At the end of March this year, we traveled with members of Audubon Society of Greater Denver to Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Nebraska to check out the greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse leks on the ranch. We were so impressed by their efforts to successfully combine ranching operations and ecotourism that we wanted to provide readers with more background on their efforts.
R2R: Can you tell us about the history of cattle operations at Switzer Ranch?
CO: Our family originally homesteaded here in 1904. Since that time, cattle ranching has been the mainstay for multiple generations. Up until 2006, the ranch was always ran as a traditional cow/calf operation. Due to economic factors and a previous natural disaster (a tornado touched down on the ranch in 2001 leaving over 50 head dead or injured) Bruce and Sue Ann diversified their cattle operations to lower financial risk. Currently, the cattle operations employs three separate business lines; backgrounding, short-term cows and custom grazing. The backgrounding operation buys freshly weaned calves (approx. 500 lbs) in the fall and re-sells them in the spring/early summer at approx. 900lbs. Short-term cows are bought either in the fall or winter, calved out in the spring and then both the cows and calves are sold early to mid summer. Custom grazing involves taking in cattle for clients on our grass for a 5 month grazing season (May thru September). We provide full care for the cattle while they are on our ranch.
R2R: When did you decide to incorporate ecotourism and conservation into the ranch’s operations?
CO: Adam (Bruce and Sue Ann’s son) founded Calamus Outfitters ten years ago as a means to come back to live and work on the ranch. He immediately employed nature based tourism in the form of hunting, horseback riding and river trips. Bird watching was added in 2006. Conservation was formally added in 2009 with the creation of the Switzer Ranch and Nature Reserve. I say “formally” because ranchers in the Sandhills have a very strong history of excellent land stewardship and our family was no exception. But the formation of our own private nature reserve prompted us to define our bio-diversity goals which include grazing for heterogeneity, restoring ecological processes, restoring natural hydrology and controlling invasives.
Three main factors encouraged us to move in this direction. First, by talking with our clients who visited the ranch through Calamus Outfitters we became alarmed at how disconnected many people are from the land (including the plants and animals that are found there). Furthermore, some people assumed that ag producers either didn’t care for the land or took advantage of the land in negative ways. We recognized the need for EDUCATION on this matter! Our family believes that ranching is one of the best practices for grassland ecosystems when managed correctly (in recognition and support of the biodiversity found there). Secondly, after offering prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse viewing we started to learn more about the status and needs of these species as well as the larger contingent of grassland birds. We were alarmed (again) to learn of the rapid decline of birds in this category and could plainly see some of the contributing factors to this decline “in our own backyard”. Through eco-tourism, the birds immediately grew in value to us. We could no longer put off our habitat concerns. They were pushed to the forefront. Lastly, we began working with non-profits like Audubon, The Grassland Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Not only did these groups provide excellent support and information, the latter two organizations organized a study tour for Great Plains ranchers to the African country of Namibia to see the successful use of eco-tourism to stimulate conservation outcomes there. There we witnessed how merging these two things could not only accomplish many of our conservation goals but could also stimulate our local economy, provide our community with a long term plan for the future and help ensure that the next generations of ranchers have the opportunity to live and work here in the Sandhills.
R2R: When is the best time of year to visit the ranch if you’d like to see the lekking behavior of greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse?
CO: Mid March through May 1st with the peak being approx. the first 2 weeks of April. Both species are on the same “time table”.
R2R: Have you seen an increase in greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations since you’ve implemented these measures? How about for any other species?
CO: We have only been conducting our prairie chicken and grouse census for two years. From these counts, it looks like our current populations are healthy. There are a few portions of the landscape where we would like to see more birds—these are in areas where there are high concentrations of invasives. Control measures are being employed and we hope to see even more birds in the next 2 to 5 years move back into these areas. We are seeing more Long-Billed Curlews on an area of the ranch that has been re-seeded back to native grasses (Bruce doesn’t recall seeing the curlews on that spot for about 15-20 years). It seems like we are seeing more grassland birds overall, but I think it may be a case of we haven’t ever paid this much attention to birds before now!! All in all, we have a pretty healthy population of prairie chickens, grouse and other birds but we don’t want to wait until it’s too late…we would rather keep the birds here in the first place.
R2R: What other opportunities are available for wildlife enthusiasts throughout the year?
CO: Late January and February brings large numbers of Bald Eagles to the area (hundreds). Late April and May continues to bring many migratory birds including a lot of shorebirds. The first part of June is a great time to see our wildflowers, including the endemic federally endangered blowout penstemon. Bird watching continues to offer a lot throughout the summer months. Many enthusiasts enjoy partaking in our jeep tours where it is not uncommon to see a lot of deer (both mule deer and whitetail), coyotes, sometimes a badger or porcupine, small mammals and reptiles, a variety of grasses and wildflowers and of course, a lot of birds!
R2R: We noticed that you received a Travel and Leisure Global Vision Award in 2009. Can you tell us more about the award and how conservation efforts in Namibia were used as a model?
CO: The Namibia travel program was pioneered by the Grassland Foundation, a Nebraska-based conservation group, with ties to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US), especially their Namibia program. The Grassland Foundation is interested in conserving grassland biodiversity on the Northern Great Plains, basically through helping ranchers develop successful nature-based tourism operations to supplement their cattle income. The WWF Namibia program is headed by Chris Weaver, an American who has been over there since the early 1990s, and has been responsible for developing very successful wildlife conservation programs on the communal conservancy lands, basically a form of public land there. However, a significant portion of Namibia is in private ownership, like it is on the Northern Great Plains, where private ranchers operate mixed cattle and wildlife operations. Over the years, as the Namibian national government developed policies to allow private land owners and local people to benefit more from their wildlife resources, basically by creating value in wildlife, the opportunities for wildlife viewing and hunting have increased, so that now natured based tourism is the second most important industry there. The tourism market is still largely European, and the hospitality, guiding and interpretation, and land management practices are all first rate; and so is their educational infrastructure when it comes to training people to work in these small safari type operations. Some of the people involved with the Grassland Foundation had travelled there for pleasure, and wondered if ranchers from the Nebraska Sandhills and other places on the plains might learn how to better deliver nature-based services by going there and studying their best practices. So with the assistance of WWF, they started arranging small group educational tours to study their land and wildlife management, and hospitality practices. Travel and Leisure Magazine picked up on what they were doing, apparently when Joseph Stigliz, a Nobel Prize winning development economist, nominated them for a Global Vision Award in 2009 for wildlife tourism. My Dad and I participated in one of the early trips, and learned a lot there. Mainly what we learned was how they manage for both wildlife and cattle, principally by developing conservation management plans, and then marketing their conservation vision as part of the tourism product they deliver. One of the most important things we studied was their system of private conservancies, which are groups of private land owners who keep their individual cattle and tourism operations separate, but collaborate on wildlife management planning, so they can have the benefit of large areas under wildlife and biodiversity conservation management.
This inspired us to start the Gracie Creek Landowners Association here, which right now involves three ranches and about 50,000 acres of land. Our main focus at the moment is improving habitat for grassland birds by removing invasive cedar trees, developing innovative grazing plans, and starting an ongoing program to monitor Greater Prairie Chicken and Sharp-tailed grouse numbers and distribution on the ranches. We also hope to be part of research projects sponsored by the University of Nebraska too. We find that our clients who come here to bird and watch wildlife, are interested in our biodiversity conservation practices, and want to support us for it. It is not so much that we learned any one thing in Namibia, but more that we really got a better understanding about how to integrate conservation planning, research, hospitality, and collaboration with neighbors, to create a different kind of context and conversation for the wildlife component of our ranching operation. It was a fabulous experience over there, and one we will never forget. The Grassland Foundation was kind enough to share in their prestigious award with us as we were one of the first ranchers to participate in the program and are implementing lessons learned from Africa here on the Great Plains (and we feel with some success:)).
R2R: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
CO: We really value all of our customers who partake in our eco-tourism opportunities. They are a really important cog in the wheel. Without them, the conservation we are implementing would be more challenging and our family’s life here together on this land that we cherish would not be possible. We believe that government, non-profits, private landowners and communities need to all work together to tackle t conservation “problems” and environmental challenges our world is faced with. Private landowners have a tremendous opportunity to make a meaningful impact not only on their own land, but on a local, regional, national and even global level.