ALDA, Neb. — They're turning back the clock — way, way back — at a popular sandhill crane stopover on the Platte River.
The Crane Trust is re-introducing bison to an island that covers more prairie than many Nebraska villages and towns. It's part of a strategy to take management of the area's critical crane habitat back to the future.
Wildlife biologists ran wild with the idea Saturday and opened the trust's historic Shoemaker Island to probably its first bison trail stampede since Nebraska's early statehood years in the 1860s.
This rush of critters, however, was a two-legged species, a herd of grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the pioneers who paid a fistful of dollars to be the first people to run on grassland trails carved over time by cattle and shaped by old river channels. The Buffalo Stampede 5-kilometer run circled part of a 2,000-acre expanse of native Platte River habitat on an island that has gone virtually unchanged for more than a century.
Chuck Cooper, the Crane Trust's president and chief executive, said bringing bison back to the island is an attempt to replicate historic habitat conditions along a sliver of the Platte in south-central Nebraska. Having people pave the way for bison is an opportunity to interact with the prairie, he said.
“Now they got to see it and touch it,'' Cooper said. “Hopefully they'll take a little piece away with them. We might create some value in their heart that places like this are important.''
The Crane Trust is a nonprofit organization established in 1978 to protect and maintain critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane, sandhill cranes and other migratory birds. It manages more than 10,000 acres along the Platte west of Grand Island. Nearly half of that expanse is on sprawling Shoemaker and Mormon Islands near the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center south of Alda.
For decades, the trust has leased the island grasslands to cattle producers to graze their livestock. Cycles of nongrazing, grazing and burning produced conditions similar to what existed before the prairie was fenced and farmed. Biologists have detailed records of the plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles and wildlife the habitat maintains, and the cranes it hosts.
Cattle will remain on Mormon Island as bison are re-introduced to Shoemaker Island. Fencing and a river channel will separate the herds. Wildlife biologists are eager to compare and analyze habitat differences on the cow and bison islands in coming years, and to see how cranes respond to buffalo-built habitat.
Shoemaker Island will get a 19th-century makeover. Bison are much larger and heavier than cattle. Their hooves churn up the land differently than do cattle. Their jaws and chewing action are different. Bison create large, barren bowls in the earth, called wallows.
“It'll physically be a different place than the land on the other side of the channel,'' Cooper said.
Different species of plants, insects and invertebrates are expected to take advantage of the new landscape to re-establish themselves on Shoemaker Island, Cooper said. Biologists will monitor how cranes use the island.
“Historically, cranes and bison were here long before people were,'' Cooper said. “We're the ones who separated them. Now we're going in to bring them back together to see what happens.''
The trust will continue to use mechanical methods to manage its land, such as dragging disks and other heavy equipment into the river to clear sandbars and islands of trees and keep the river open for cranes. Catastrophic ice jams, floods, fire and hundreds of thousands of roaming bison did that work historically.
“Catastrophic is now seen as a bad thing,'' Cooper said. “It's exactly what the prairie needed, but it doesn't happen anymore. We're trying to replicate what always happened here.''
The islands hold Nebraska's largest continuous piece of tall, mixed-grass prairie, Cooper said. Stands on Mormon Island are 6 to 8 feet tall.
“Most Nebraskans have never seen grass like that,'' Cooper said. “It was in abundance. Ninety-nine percent of the native mixed-grass prairie in Nebraska is gone. Now there's little pockets to see.''
Lincoln-area rancher Randy Miller provides the bison, Cooper said. The trust will not own them.
The trust has one bull and three heifers in a restored prairie east of the nature center now. About six more are expected to join them in coming months before a herd of about 40 arrives next year, Cooper said.
The inaugural Buffalo Stampede attracted about 80 runners and walkers. The event was filmed by a production crew as part of a 30-minute documentary on the Crane Trust for PBS's “Visionaries'' series. The first round of filming took place in March during the peak of the sandhill crane migration. The Crane Trust episode is scheduled to premiere in the fall.
“We're pretty excited getting people on the open prairie this year, where bison will be grazing next year,'' Cooper said. “Next year they can run alongside bison.''
On the outside of the fence.