THE MAGIC OF MIGRATION

by Cadell Walker, Director of Philanthropy for The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky

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After working at The Nature Conservancy for many years, I am familiar with the annual Sandhill crane migration which takes place a few states away in Nebraska – smack dab in the middle of the country. This year I had the honor of witnessing this annual wonder first-hand.

I arrived in Grand Island, Nebraska on a Monday evening and upon debarking the plane was treated to hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of snow geese. I saw more near the hotel, where they congregated at a makeshift wetland caused by recent flooding. Pictures couldn’t do justice to the sheer numbers of waterfowl, especially the distinct sound….and the smell. I suspected that maybe they were the opening act for what was to come.

After settling in, I attended a presentation by the Conservancy’s Nebraska State Director, Mace Hack, who spoke about Sandhill crane migration. I learned that this annual gathering attracts more than 500,000 Sandhill cranes – about 80 percent of the world’s population – to Nebraska’s Platte River each spring. In fact, their arrival queues local residents in to the official beginning of Spring.

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Why Nebraska? Evidently the state offers perfect conditions for Sandhill cranes embarking on their long journey to locations as far north as Alaska and Siberia. Waste from farm fields and small invertebrates inhabiting the river and surrounding marshes provides lots of opportunity for putting on the weight required for the trip. It is not uncommon for a Sandhill crane to add 20 percent to its weight during a two or three week visit to their Platte River Sandhill crane resort.

The Platte River also provides Sandhill cranes with good protection at night. Wide and shallow, the river allows the birds to stand in the water and avoid coyotes and other predators. Come morning, they return to the fields in communal song after a safe night’s sleep.

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This year, due to the cold winter, there were fewer Sandhill cranes than usual. But the show was no less spectacular. After driving along some country roads, we reached the bird blind located on the Conservancy’s property. Then came the magic. After one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen, we witnessed thousands of Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, snow geese and bald eagles in front of the blind and they stretched out for miles and miles beyond the horizon.

As night fell and the Sandhill cranes left for their posts in the river, our group quietly departed through a cornfield lit by the moon and stars. I left not only with a check mark next to an item from my own personal “bucket list,” but with pride in being part of an organization which plays a role in conserving river habitat critical to wildlife. I couldn’t wait to return to Kentucky to focus in on our own unique species and places back in the Bluegrass State.IMG_1025

Dam Dispositions Take Spotlight at Mammoth Cave Meeting

by Mike Hensley, Green River Project Manager for The Nature Conservancy

Cordial. Positive. Productive. Solution-oriented.

These are words used to describe a well-attended meeting of stakeholders who recently gathered at Mammoth Cave National Park to discuss the future of three old lock and dam systems on the Green River and one on the Barren River. The participants – who represented public, private, academic and non-profit organizations – came prepared with thoughtful insights for this discussion, organized by The Nature Conservancy, which covered complex and potentially contentious issues.

Local leaders and stakeholders talk about the future of locks and dams located in the Green and Barren rivers.

Local leaders and stakeholders talk about the future of locks and dams located in the Green and Barren rivers.

The meeting kicked off with a warm welcome from first, our own Jim Aldrich, and then Mammoth Cave National Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead. Then one of our Chapter trustees, Larry Cox, set the tone for the day in pointing out that no matter what a person’s viewpoint might be with regard to the old lock and dam systems, we can all agree that they are aging and in varying states of disrepair. He noted that determining what role the obsolete lock and dams might play in the future of our river, should frame discussions taking place that day.

With everyone in agreement on that point, the meeting turned to a recap of the history related to these structures. Even though they no longer provide passage for commercial barge traffic, the lock and dam systems located along the Green and Barren rivers continue to have an impact on people and wildlife located in their drainage. For example, some municipalities have situated water intake structures in pools created by the dams. If dams are removed, these structures may need to be redesigned. From a different perspective, the locks and dams present a barrier to recreational use of the river and present a serious safety hazard to boaters.

Green River Lock and Dam 6 served as a focus of discussion.

Green River Lock and Dam #6 served as a focus of discussion.

The dams also disrupt the natural flow patterns of both rivers, resulting in negative impacts to fish, mussels and other river species and on the cave systems within Mammoth Cave National Park. In fact, the National Park Service has stated that the continuing presence of Green River Lock and Dam #6, out of operation since 1951, poses “the single greatest unresolved ecosystem management issue at Mammoth Cave National Park.”

After the history lesson, several in attendance gave excellent presentations on topics ranging from national experiences with dam removal to natural and cultural attributes specific to the rivers themselves. Following the presentations, the group broke out into separate facilitated sessions focused on the four individual lock and dam structures to share ideas, challenges, questions and opportunities for cooperation and research. After lunch, a panel reported on overarching issues and opportunities emerging from the facilitated sessions.

Participants consider lock and dam dispositions at a watershed scale.

Participants consider lock and dam dispositions at a watershed scale.

The day ended with a field trip – a short drive to see Green River Lock and Dam #6. There will be a lot of work and careful planning, many additional discussions, and assuredly some bumps in the road before any lock or dam removal takes place. But if our meeting served as any indication of the end result, I am confident that thoughtful discussion and informed consensus will lead to conservation actions that benefit people and these rivers. I already know first hand that The Nature Conservancy remains committed to finding and supporting solutions that remove dangerous dams, promote recreational access and associated local tourism, insure adequate water supply to communities, and restore natural flows to the river system.

Thanks to representatives from the following organizations for attending the meeting to weigh in on this important topic:

  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
  • American Rivers
  • Mammoth Cave National Park
  • Office of Senator Mitch McConnell
  • Office of Senator Rand Paul
  • Office of Congressman Brett Guthrie
  • Office of Congressman Ed Whitfield
  • Barren River Area Development District
  • Numerous county and municipality representatives