Ash and bison: Signs of renewal

I’ve spent quite a few days on the road in western Nebraska this year. The trips are always exhausting, but invariably I learn something new. Sure, taking pictures is great fun, but if I’m being totally honest, opportunities to learn are what I love most about my job.

This last week, I became acquainted with ash and bison, two signs of renewal in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Read the full story here, or click here for a slideshow of all my photos.

A surplus of dry dust and ash is kicked up as a herd of bison react to the presence of Nature Conservancy of Nebraska employees, who, along with help from volunteers and neighbors, cull 126 yearling and 2-year-old bison at the Niobrara Valley Preserve on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD


In 1985, the Nature Conservancy started to bring bison back to the animal’s native grazing land on the Niobrara Valley Preserve. Huge herds of bison once roamed the Great Plains, but having been overhunted, the population approached extinction. Now, almost 30 years later, two healthy herds roam the land.


Darvin Brannon opens a gate while sorting one of the two bison herds on the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Brannon, who ranches north of the preserve, traditionally works with beef cattle. “Beef cattle are lots calmer. Buffalo are wild animals. You try to handle them, but they’re still wild,” Brannon said, adding, “When you watch them, you can kind of tell what they’re going to do. If they’ve got their tail up and head down, you better look out. Look for a corral to climb over.” ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD


But why all the ash? Recent wildfires on the preserve have destroyed more than half of the grazing land. Traditionally, the herd is culled in late October, but with little to no rain, the pastures were already low on grass. The wildfires just added insult to injury. To make sure the rest of the herd can get enough to eat, Nature Conservancy employees, volunteers and area ranchers sorted 126 bison to be sold off.


Bison walk through ash and dust in the early morning light. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD


Like I said, though, the ash is also a sign of renewal. Though the wildfire destroyed grazing land and several homes, it will also nourish the soil, kill off diseases and create new habitats.

“In a year or two years, we’ll start saving heifers, and we’ll build the herd back up to the numbers where we want them. It won’t take long to get our numbers back,” Niobrara Valley Preserve Bison Manager Richard Egelhoff said.


Nelson Winkel, with the Nature Conservancy, uses his hat to direct bison toward the gate during the sorting process. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD


As you can see in the image below, the trees along the ridgeline are all but destroyed, but signs of life, like new sprouts of grass, are making their way back. I’m excited to revisit the preserve in the coming years to see how the land has changed and to check in with the herds.


At sunrise, new grass can be seen among the burned remains of a field and trees along a ridge at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. ALYSSA SCHUKAR/THE WORLD-HERALD


I’ve posted a video from the day below. Also, three weeks ago, co-worker Jeff Beiermann spent a week covering the wildfires near the preserve. You can see his work here.


Alyssa Schukar

About Alyssa Schukar

I have been a staff photojournalist at the Omaha World-Herald since September 2008. I'm from Lincoln and am a 2006 graduate of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previously, I worked as an assistant at Malone and Co., a commercial photography studio in Omaha. My favorite pictures are those that give insight on the life of an individual or family because I understand the world better through the experiences of the people I meet. It's always humbling to be allowed such intimate access. My most challenging assignments come in many forms. Funerals, especially those of soldiers, always are emotionally draining, but I try to approach people with respect and dignity. In my time at the paper, I have covered a wide variety of assignments, including the Nebraska and Iowa National Guard's deployments in Afghanistan, Husker football at home and away, portraits of wigs big and small, rodeo queen competitions and intimate views of everyday life and love. Follow me on twitter @OWHalyssa.
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  1. mike mitchem says:

    Buffalo steaks are a healthy alternative to beef with less fat, higher nutrients and higher in protein than other red meats. When not overcooked they are tender and juicy. They are also rich in Omega 3 fatty acids which are essential to every cell in the body. Higher protein means more energy and lower fat equals less cholesterol. Range fed Buffalo isn’t pumped full of hormones, antibiotics and other harmful chemicals like beef, pork and chicken.