With spring approaching, the sandhill cranes are making their way to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Six-hundred-thousand of them will make their famous pit stop in Nebraska along the Platte River. Their gathering is a sight to behold.
Dusty Barner owns outdoor adventure outfitter Dusty Trails in North Platte. He founded the business about 15 years ago to provide activities like horseback riding and river tubing.
“The nighttime, in the blind, it's almost a religious experience," Barner says. "You're sitting in there, and it's dark, and it's quiet. And just the sound and the vast numbers. I mean, it just — it feels like you are sitting in the hand of God right there.”
Barner was preparing to add sandhill crane and prairie chicken tours to the Dusty Trails roster. But lockdown began mere days before he was scheduled to give the first one, and most guests canceled their reservations. Barner estimates the pandemic has cost him about $100,000 of business.
“We looked at it maybe being about — let's see — about a fifth or a sixth of our total income, as it was. And it dropped off to next to nothing," he says. "We probably did a fourth of what we thought we could have done.”
Sandhill crane viewing is a multi-million dollar industry in this state. In a normal year, tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world — including conservationist Jane Goodall — flock to central Nebraska to see the birds. But, of course, this isn’t a normal year, and businesses that depend on crane tourism are adjusting. Bird watchers who are unable or unwilling to travel still want a taste of one of nature’s most stunning migrations, and those who are journeying to the 80-mile stretch of Platte River must be kept safe.
For the handful who still came to Dusty Trails last year, Barner took extra precautions. Tour groups were small anyway, so social distancing on his 50-passenger bus wasn’t a problem. Masks were required, and the bus and viewing blind were sanitized between excursions.
Chuck Cooper is CEO of Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska.
“Normally, we have about in March, at our nature center right there off Exit 305 outside of Grand Island — we'll have as many as 30,000 people come through our nature center just in March," Cooper says. "And that that probably isn't going to happen. You know, it's much too dangerous for that.”
Crane Trust works to conserve and protect the sandhill cranes and their habitat along the Platte River. He says a normal crane season contributes about $300,000 to their yearly revenue.
“We're a 501(c)(3). We're a nonprofit," Cooper says. "And basically what we do is we restore habitat for the cranes and other migratory birds. So where we're located is our largest piece of land: it's over 6,000 acres of native prairie. And so it's, it's a labor of love, but this is our — probably — our primary fundraising season when they we raise money to help do the work the rest of the year. So it's a concern.”
A 2017 study out of the University of Nebraska Kearney concluded that the migration brings an estimated $14.3 million to the central Nebraska economy and adds 182 jobs.
Much of that business goes through one of two nonprofit conservation organizations: the Crane Trust, or the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska. Bill Taddicken is the director of Rowe Sanctuary.
“Normally we can accommodate pretty close to 120 people every morning and every evening on our crane tours," Taddicken says. "And most of the time, in the last few years, we've been pretty close to full each day.”
When the pandemic hit last March, crane season, which usually begins in February and ends in early April, was in full swing. The sanctuary had built four new bird watching blinds and was prepared to welcome the estimated 35,000 guests who come through the visitor center every spring and provide about a third of Rowe’s annual budget.
But Rowe had to shut down only six days into the 2020 season. It was the second consecutive year that business took a hit, after flooding cut them off from visitors in 2019.
“So we probably lost half of our crane season in 2019; the majority of our crane season in 2020," Taddicken says. "And this year...I'd say, we're going to be about 10 percent of normal.”
To comply with safety measures this year, Rowe’s visitor center is closed through April 15. Masks are required on all guided tours and on Rowe Sanctuary property. So, tours are happening, but they’ll be much smaller — only about ten people a day instead of the usual 120. Reservations for in-person tours are sold out, but tickets for a virtual tour on March 10 are still available.
Self-guided tours on Rowe’s walking trails are free and available during visiting hours as long as guests are masked. The Rowe website also links to a driving tour map provided by the visitors bureau in Kearney, about 15 miles northeast of Gibbon.
The Crane Trust, on the other hand, made the difficult decision to not offer public tours in 2021. Instead, starting March 1, the organization is offering virtual tours for the first time. Crane Trust installed a state-of-the-art camera near the roost to act as a sort of virtual viewing blind, Cooper says.
“[The camera] is 35 feet in the air. It's situated on the largest crane roost in the world," he says. "It's not unusual for 100,000 cranes to be in the river, right there.”
Patrons who donate $75 or more will have 24/7 access to the camera’s livestream and can reserve spots for the virtual tours with one of Crane Trust’s trained guides — or Cooper himself.
“One of the great experiences out there during crane season [is] the sunrise," he says. "Where our blinds are, the sun literally looks like it's coming out of the river, and and so the the colors and the sky is just amazing. We'll be able to actually rotate the camera so that you can watch the sunrise, and then we can take it back around and watch the birds interact. Because as the sun comes up, then the birds wake up. And all their feathers glisten because of the moisture that's on their feathers overnight.”
Despite restrictions, anecdotal evidence suggests 2021 could shape up okay for crane tourism. Dusty Barner says he’s seen an increase in customers from in-state. After all, it’s a largely outdoor activity in a sparsely populated area — traits that are good for pandemic safety.
Brad Mellema is the executive director of Grand Island Tourism, which refers travelers to Crane Trust for guided tours.
“Pleasure tourism was one of the saving graces of last year's pandemic," Mellema says. "People were getting out and exploring, and they did look for nature-based activities to do.”
Mellema says businesses shouldn’t expect a full recovery for this migration, but hope is on the horizon.
“The sandhill crane migration we had hoped would be back to full speed, but it's just not quite there yet," he says. "So hopefully in , this is more of a distant memory, and our properties can certainly look forward to more prosperous times.”