Each year, as roughly 600,000 sandhill cranes fly into Central Nebraska, with them comes tens of thousands of visitors as well.
The migration, which contains 80% of the world’s crane population, is considered one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent and has been capturing people’s interest, from around the world, for decades.
The interest and relevance is no different in Nebraska.
Just as the arrival of the cranes, and the millions of other migratory birds that visit each spring is highly anticipated, so to is the anticipation of the visitors to view them as well.
In 2017, a University of Nebraska report written by Bree Dority, associate professor of finance, and others, highlighted just that.
The researchers estimated that the birds brought with them about 43,300 visitors from outside central Nebraska into the area during the crane migration, and Dority said these numbers are most likely very similar for 2020.
Anne Winkel, the crane festival organizer and outreach assistant for the National Audubon Society at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, said the crane season is completely different for her organization than the off-season.
“Visitation can be up to 1,000 people a day during the peak Crane Season; during the rest of the year, visitation is sporadic and is much lower, a couple visitors a week,” she said.
This visitation, of course, not only spreads awareness about the cranes, but helps the local economy of Nebraska as well.
The researchers found that crane-viewing tourists and crane venues, such as Rowe Sanctuary, directly and indirectly spent $14.3 million in the 13 central Nebraska counties that hosted cranes during the migration.
Spending an average of $93.37 per person, the visitors have an impact on local visitor’s centers, hotels, businesses and touring companies during their stay in the state.
Muriel Clark, assistant director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau, said the tourism has gotten so crazy that the Bureau has been working on relieving some of the stress that Kearney and Grand Island face as they are often overloaded with visitors.
“This year we have expanded our offerings in the hopes of relieving some of the pressure off of the sandhill cranes in the Kearney and Grand Island areas as the attractions there are reaching max capacity and sometimes have to turn away potential visitors,” Clark said.
Some things the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau offer, according to Clark, are afternoon crane tours, morning and evening river blind tours, prairie chicken tours, three days of horseback excursions, and assistance for travel writers and local tourism people learning about the cranes for the first time.
Eugene Hunt, the Fort Kearny State Historical Park and State Recreation Area superintendent, said the same attraction to the birds transforms his region during the spring as well.
Hunt said that during the regular season (when the cranes are not in the state) the park gets about 40 to 60 visitors a day.
During the crane season, he said the number is more than double – 100 to 150 visitors.
The visitors, he said, come specifically for the cranes, and leave the park with a newfound sense of amazement each year.
“The enthusiasm that the visitors see and hear of thousands of sandhill cranes coming and going, make some so overwhelmed that they can hardly explain their emotions,” Hunt said.
Hotels around the area, such as the La Quinta Inn & Suites, just a couple miles away from some prime crane-viewing spots, prepare for the influx of visitors as well.
“We have quite a few people come for the cranes, and when they’re here (the cranes), we get a lot more people,” Ayla Frerichs, the manager of the hotel, said.
This attention on the cranes has not always been the case.
According to Hunt and Winkel, the popularity of the migration didn’t begin until the latter half of the 1900s.
“There were bird people to see the early migration in the 1960s,” Hunt said, “but the numbers started to increase in the 1980s.”
He said the Fort Kearny State Historical Park and State Recreation Area adapted to this spike in interest by introducing more interactive experiences, changing and updating its DVD program, and hiring additional employees.
The National Audubon Society, Winkel said, adapted as well.
Winkel said creating the visitors center in 2003 was a step in the right direction as it has sparked exponentially more visitors when compared to the 1970s.
It worked, and because of the popularity over time, viewing, as well as infrastructure to protect the cranes, has evolved, Winkel said.
One of these visitors, Maria Julie, said she knew about the cranes as a kid growing up in Wood River, but never truly understood their importance until she was older.
“To be honest, as a kid we used to take field trips to Crane Meadows so we could learn about them,” Julie said. “I wasn’t very impressed, because, as a kid, I saw them as just birds.”
Julie said on one of these trips however, a teacher told the group that people came from around the world to see the cranes, and this trip, she said, changed her perspective.
“I couldn’t believe it, that people would come out all the way to Nebraska, near my hometown no less, just to see them,” Julie said. “As you can imagine, that sparked a sense of pride; I got home and told my parents and anyone that would listen about this little fact and since then, I’ve had a whole new level of appreciation.”
An appreciation, she said, that drives her to appreciate them still to this day.
Julie said she drives out from Omaha to see her parents often, and while doing so, makes a point to view the cranes.
“When I go back home to visit my parents now, I make a point to drive out and see them when they’re around, and I still think to myself, ‘how cool is it that this is in my backyard,’” Julie said.
Julie, like others, still try and make it a point to come see the cranes when they can each year.
However, with changing environmental conditions, she and others have found it difficult to view the cranes in recent years.
This difficulty was especially true as last season’s migration was cut short because of extremely cold temperatures and flooding in the area.
Winkel said, last year, visitation was down 50 percent due to the cold weather and the integrity of the roads.
Chuck Cooper, the Chief Executive Officer at Crane Trust said that he hopes there are better conditions this year, as last year’s weather was so cold that the Crane Trust canceled blind tours during the first week of March.
Bill Hiatt, a resource conservationist at Central Platte NRD, is one of the many people that, no matter the conditions, gets the region ready for the cranes each year through conservation, working on the construction of viewing platforms and cleaning up the area that the cranes land in.
He said last year was unique because the weather conditions meant for fewer visitors and thus less economic impact to the region.
“We didn’t really get as many visitors to the area as usual,” Hiatt said. “It was kind of a different year, you know, where the main focus was on flooding rather than cranes.”
This year, all those involved will be hoping for good conditions as one of the grandest migration spectacles on Earth ensues.
With conservation efforts from those like Hiatt, or preparation from local business owners and managers such as Winkel and Frerichs, people from all around the globe will be greeted as they always do, with excitement.
“Whether it’s giving our visitors a great experience viewing the sandhill cranes, just letting people know about it, or helping our local entrepreneurs have a successful season, helping people have fun is what gets me out of bed in the morning,” Clark said.
For more information on the viewing or conservation of sandhill cranes and their migration, visit https://visitnebraska.com/sandhill-crane-migration.