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.
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.
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.
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.
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.