The Switzer Ranch is a 12,000-acre diversified cattle ranch near the Calamus Reservoir in Loup County that has been in the family since 1904. Today four generations live on the land that, along with two neighboring ranches, is designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society - the first private site identified as an IBA in Nebraska.
Sarah Sortum, daughter of Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer, grew up on the ranch, along with her brother Adam. After school and jobs “away,” she and her husband returned to join the family business and raise their kids on the family’s land. According to Sarah, conservation isn’t something new to her generation.
“Our family has always taken care of the land. It’s not like we were starting in a bad spot. But we started to realize that we should and could tweak a few things and do things better,” said Sarah.
The Switzer Ranch participates in a handful of conservation programs, using particular management practices, including prescribed burns, prescribed grazing, invasive cedar control, prairie grouse monitoring, and outreach and education to promote conservation and biodiversity in the Sandhills. When the family started “tweaking” things, they ultimately focused on management practices specific to two priority species: the greater prairie-chicken and the blowout penstemon.
“We hope that through these focal species we can do a lot of good in a broader sense,” said Sarah.
In the last century, the prairie-chicken almost went extinct due to hunting pressure and habitat loss. Today, each Spring, people from around the globe travel to the Switzer Ranch to see the charismatic mating rituals of the prairie-chicken and its close relative the sharp-tailed grouse.
The Switzers have noticed that activities to enhance prairie-chicken habitat also positively affected other grassland birds, including the prairie-chicken’s close relative, the sharp-tailed grouse, as well as the long-billed curlew and the lark bunting to name a few.
“The great thing about it is you can go out and see that resource, and then the next day you can go out and see it again,” said Sarah.
Several years ago they started the annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival, and since then the Switzers have solidified their reputation as a premium location for birding and tourism in the Great Plains. The family’s conservation ethic combined with a willingness to diversify, to introduce nature-based tourism to their family’s activities, has made it possible for every member of the family to support themselves on the ranch.
“For our birders, we help them realize that they’re part of our strategy. They’re enabling us to stay here and manage for grassland birds. It’s a win-win deal right there,” said Sarah.
For the federally-endangered blowout penstemon, the ranch teamed up with the University of Nebraska to plant young seedlings in their pastures. The Switzers and volunteers then monitor and keep track of the warm season perennial plants, providing information to researchers and enthusiasts.
The Switzers and their neighbors, the Morgans, make up the Gracie Creek Landowners Association, a voluntary collaborative landowner initiative committed to supporting eastern Nebraska Sandhills ranchers, while simultaneously protecting and conserving the unique ecology and wildlife found there. In 2013, the group was recognized with a regional environmental stewardship award from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The Switzers, as an individual ranch and as a larger association, have partnered with numerous entities to achieve their conservation goals. They work extensively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Audubon Nebraska, the Sandhills Task Force, Nebraska Game & Parks, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program.
Sarah and the Gracie Creek Landowners Association just recently wrapped up a four-year project with the Nebraska Environmental Trust that helped to cost-share specific practices to improve ecological processes designed to conserve and protect native species and habitat, specifically prairie-chicken and blowout penstemon.
Prescribed grazing, specifically deferred rotation grazing systems, and prescribed burns were key to increasing food and cover available to wildlife in the area. They worked to improve overall plant structural diversity, variability in grass height and density across the landscape, as well as to intersperse various habitat types.
“The birds need different grass habitat at different times in their life cycle. We need to provide all different niches, and we try to move those around,” said Sarah. “So, grazing is a great tool for us. We can use it and manage it to strengthen areas or heal areas or mow an area down. Grazing is something we can do every year.”
The Switzers use grazing to manage for the blowout penstemon as well, using yearlings in certain areas to open up sands habitat - the necessary environment for the endangered plant to grow.
In addition to implementation, the project with the Nebraska Environmental Trust covered the cost of monitoring that helped landowners identify trends, as well as outreach and public education through ranch tours, public presentations, printed materials and outreach.
“On the ground it’s been awesome,” said Sarah. “It’s not like you go out and see a big change, but you go out and see it look more like how it should, which gives you a lot of satisfaction.”
Feature image: Sarah Sortum oversees the recovery of the endangered blowout penstemon on her family’s ranch. Photo top, a prairie chicken is captured in dance at the Switzer Ranch. Chicken photo by Wyatt Fraas, Sarah's photo by Kat Shiffler
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