Courtney Bierman reports on the Sandhill Crane tourism season 2021 and the associated pandemic restrictions.

As spring approaches, the cranes make 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. Your gathering is a sight to behold.

Dusty Barner owns the outdoor adventure store Dusty Trails in North Platte. He started the company about 15 years ago to offer activities like horse riding and river tubing

“At night, in the blind, it’s almost a religious experience,” says Barner. “You’re sitting in there and it’s dark and it’s quiet. And just the sound and the huge numbers – I mean, it just feels like you’re sitting right there in the hand of God. “

Barner was preparing to add sandhill crane and prairie chicken tours to the list of Dusty Trails. However, the lockdown began just days before it was supposed to be the first, and most guests canceled their reservations. Barner estimates the pandemic cost him about $ 100,000.

“We looked to see that maybe – let’s see – it is about a fifth or a sixth of our total income as it was. And next to nothing fell off, “he says.” We’ve done probably a quarter of what we thought possible. ”

Sandhill crane viewing is a multimillion dollar industry in this state. In a normal year, tens of thousands of tourists from around the world – including conservationist Jane Goodall – flock to central Nebraska to see the birds. But of course this is not a normal year and companies that depend on crane tourism are adapting. Bird watchers who cannot or do not want to travel still want a taste of one of nature’s finest hikes, and those traveling the 80-mile stretch of the Platte River need to be escorted to safety.

For the handful that got to Dusty Trails last year, Barner took extra precautions. Tour groups were small anyway, so social distancing wasn’t an issue on his 50-passenger bus. Masks were required, and the bus and privacy screens were refurbished between trips.

Chuck Cooper is the CEO of Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska.

“We usually have around March at our nature center right off Exit 305 outside Grand Island – we won’t be passing 30,000 people through our nature center until March,” says Cooper. “And that probably won’t happen. You know, it’s way too dangerous for that.”

Crane Trust is committed to preserving and protecting the sandhill cranes and their habitat along the Platte River. He says a normal crane season adds about $ 300,000 to their annual sales.

“We are a 501 (c) (3). We’re nonprofit, “says Cooper.” And basically we are restoring the habitat for the cranes and other migratory birds. So where we are is our largest piece of land: it’s over 6,000 acres of native prairie. And so it is, it’s a love job, but this is our – probably – our primary fundraising season where we raise money to do the job for the rest of the year. So it’s a problem. “

A 2017 study by the University of Nebraska Kearney concluded that migration is generating an estimated $ 14.3 million for the economy in central Nebraska and creating 182 jobs.

Much of this business runs 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.

“Usually we can accommodate almost 120 people every morning and evening on our crane tours,” says Taddicken. “And for most of the last few years we’ve been almost full every day.”

When the pandemic hit last March, the crane season, which usually starts in February and ends in early April, was in full swing. The sanctuary had four new bird watching blinds built and was ready to greet the estimated 35,000 guests who come through the visitor center each spring, providing about a third of Rowe’s annual budget.

But Rowe only had to stand still for six days in the 2020 season. It was the second year in a row that the store suffered a blow after the floods cut them off from visitors in 2019.

“So we probably lost half of our 2019 crane season. most of our 2020 crane season, “says Taddicken.” And this year … I’d say we’re going to be about 10 percent of normal. “

In order to comply with security this year, the Rowe Visitor Center will be closed until April 15th. Masks are required on all tours and on Rowe Sanctuary’s property. So there are tours going on, but they will be much smaller – only about ten people a day instead of the usual 120. Reservations for personal tours are sold out, but tickets for a virtual tour on March 10th are still available.

Self-guided tours of Rowe’s trails are free and available during opening hours as long as guests are masked. The Rowe website also contains links to a train ticket provided by the visitor’s office in Kearney, about 15 miles northeast of Gibbon.

The Crane Trust, on the other hand, made the difficult decision not to offer public tours in 2021. Instead, the organization will be offering virtual tours for the first time from March 1st. Crane Trust installed a state-of-the-art camera near the sleeping area that acts as a kind of virtual screen, says Cooper.

“[The camera] is 35 feet in the air. It is located on the largest crane yard in the world, “he says.” It’s not uncommon for 100,000 cranes to be in the river right there. “

Users who donate USD 75 or more have 24/7 access to the camera’s live stream and can reserve seats for the virtual tours with one of the Crane Trust-trained guides – or with Cooper himself.

“One of the great experiences during the crane season [is] the sunrise, “he says.” Where our blinds are, the sun literally looks like it’s coming out of the river, so the colors and the sky are just amazing. We can actually rotate the camera so you can watch the sunrise and then we can take it back and watch the birds interact. Because when the sun comes up, the birds wake up. And all of her feathers glitter because of the moisture that is on her feathers overnight. “

Despite restrictions, there are individual indications that 2021 could be okay for crane tourism. Dusty Barner says he’s seen an increase in in-state customers. After all, it’s a largely outdoor activity in a sparsely populated area – features that are good for pandemic safety.

Brad Mellema is the managing director of Grand Island Tourism, who refers travelers to Crane Trust for guided tours.

“Leisure tourism was one of the saving graces of the pandemic last year,” says Mellema.

Mellema said companies shouldn’t expect a full recovery on this migration, but hope is emerging.

“The sandhill crane walk we were hoping for would be back in full swing, but it’s not quite there yet,” he says [2022]This is more of a distant memory and our properties can certainly look forward to more prosperous times. “