The Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has announced the results of its survey to determine the top 10 ecotourist sites in the Great Plains.
Early this spring the center conducted a two-phase survey of 51 naturalists in nine states with knowledge of Great Plains ecotourism.
Richard Edwards, director of the center, said, "We surveyed field personnel from nonprofit organizations, managers of private ecotourism companies, state agency officials and others. In the first round, these individuals were asked to identify 20 Great Plains sites which they considered to offer the best, most powerful environmental experience and/or the ones that are ecologically the most important."
In the second phase of the survey, the center shared with respondents the first-round results and then asked them to nominate their top sites from this list. The most frequently identified sites were then named as the region's top 10 sites. They are:
Badlands National Park(S.D.) — The park has 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie. It is home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and other wildlife. The South Unit of the park is in the process of becoming the first tribal national park, with its world-class natural and cultural resources to be managed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Rowe Bird Sanctuary/CraneTrust/Central Platte River (Neb.) — This group of sites offers multiple wildlife-viewing and hiking opportunities. Most dramatically, some 500,000 to 600,000 migrating sandhill cranes stop along this short stretch of the river from early March to early April to refuel. Both Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust maintain riverine habitat for cranes and other birds.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (Mont.) — This immense wildlife refuge, some 1.1 million acres, stretches 125 miles along the Missouri River, and includes native shortgrass prairies, forested coulees, river bottoms and badlands populated with wildly profuse animal life such as Rocky Mountain elk, pronghorn, white-tail and mule deer, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie dogs, eagles and hawks.
American Prairie Reserve (Mont.) — This relatively new World Wildlife Fund-initiated, now-independent private nonprofit, is constructing a 500,000-acre private reserve. Along with the abutting Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and other public lands, it will constitute a 3-million acre wildlife reserve. This private nonprofit initiative is one of the most ambitious and important conservation efforts in North America.
The Switzer Ranch and Nature Reserve (Neb.) — The ranch and its affliliate Calamus Outfitters operate a cattle ranch promoting their "ranching to conserve, conserving to ranch" philosophy. It is set on the stunning virgin mixed-grass prairie of Nebraska's Sandhills, a semi-arid region with abundant grass and aquifers that create many small ponds and lakes. The ranch spearheads an ambitious conservation project for the beautiful Gracie Creek watershed.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park(N.D.) — The park includes 70,000 acres of dry shortgrass prairie and rugged badlands terrain, the latter carved by rain, wind and ice from the soft clay hills. This scenic park supports a broad array of wildlife, including bison, wild horses, elk, white-tail and mule deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, and nearly 200 species of birds. Extensive trails for hiking create excellent photographic opportunities and exciting spots for camping.
DevilsTower National Monument (Wyo.) — Protruding out of the rolling prairie and ponderosa pines of the surrounding Black Hills, the land around the tower is composed of sedimentary rocks, the oldest of which were laid down during the Triassic period, 225 to 195 million years ago. The tower itself was formed by an intrusion of igneous material (magma). The site is considered sacred to the Lakota and other tribes that have a connection to the area.
ConataBasin (S.D.) — The basin refers both to a larger ecoregion consisting of some 142,000 acres just south of Badlands National Park and to a smaller tract of 6,188 acres (plus 25,188 acres of federal grazing allotments) owned by the Nature Conservancy. This largely intact prairie, which provides a home to the full array of prairie wildlife, is the site of a critical and controversial effort to reintroduce nearly extinct black-footed ferrets, which require prairie dogs as food source.
Fort Robinson State Park/Soldier Creek Wilderness/Petersen Wildlife Management Area (Neb.) — Located in the Pine Ridge region, this site consists of habitats alternating between mature ponderosa pine forests and grasslands in typical ridge-and-canyon topography. An excellent area for hiking, climbing, or exploring by horseback, visitors can see prairie dogs, wild turkeys, golden eagles, prairie falcons, barn owls and western songbirds such as mountain bluebirds, western tanagers, common poorwills and white-throated swifts.
Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (Mont.) — This riparian habitat, a complex and fragile ecology, is critical for the varied wildlife that depends on it, including some 60 species of mammals, 233 species of birds and 20 species of amphibians and reptiles. It stretches along nearly 150 miles of the upper Missouri River where 49 species of fish are found, including goldeye, drum, sauger, walleye, northern pike, channel cat, carp, smallmouth buffalo, and the endangered pallid sturgeon and shovelnose sturgeon.
The Center for Great Plains Studies defines an ecotourism site as any place or site that is primarily devoted to environmental or biodiversity conservation, provides an opportunity to experience nature and is open to the public, either free or for a fee. Ecotourism generates revenues critical for funding conservation initiatives, increases public awareness of and support for conservation and helps nearby human communities to thrive economically. All three are crucial to sustained and healthy conservation in the Great Plains.
Later this fall, the center will publish a map displaying the region's top 50 ecotourism sites.