The cranes are returning. Will the tourists?
GIBBON – People in the Platte River's Big Bend region look to the sky in early March when they hear familiar notes sung by a few high-flying sandhill cranes. They know the full-throated chorus isn't far behind.
This year, as the cranes return to central Nebraska, area business and tourism leaders believe American tourists – and their dollars – will return as well. For three straight disappointing years, natural disasters and then a pandemic kept them away.
They are buoyed by the half-million dollars in advertising the Nebraska Tourism Commission is spending to attract tourists from cities like Denver, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
And they are confident because, while pandemics eventually end, the cranes’ annual trek carries on.
“It’s certainly a well-known bucket list kind of thing,” said Brad Mellema, executive director of the Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Every March and early April, nearly 1 million cranes spend their days feeding in grasslands and harvested cornfields, their nights roosting on river sandbars, primarily between Grand Island and Kearney.
Their mid-migration stop is necessary to rest and rebuild body fat before continuing to breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia.
Sandhill cranes came as usual the past three years, but flooding and COVID-19 made it difficult or impossible for Audubon's Rowe Sanctuary southwest of Gibbon and the Crane Trust south of Alda to host crane watchers.
The problems started on March 13, 2019, when flooding sparked by a bomb cyclone made Rowe Sanctuary's Iain Nicolson Audubon Center inaccessible for much of crane season.
In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 forced the two non-profits to close visitors centers and cancel or severely limit tours to view cranes on river roosts, education programs, fund-raising activities and other events.
Crane season visitor numbers – usually 30,000-plus annually at each site – plummeted. Revenues too.
Back in 2019, the main problem: Mud. Thawing of saturated soils after the bomb cyclone turned many of Nebraska's rural graveled roads into bogs, including Elm Island Road along the Platte River – the only access to the Nicolson Center.
Day-to-day, even hour-to-hour, decisions to host or cancel 2019 tours to river blinds were based on road conditions.
One particularly gooey spot was in front of Rowe Sanctuary Director Bill Taddicken's house a mile west of the center. “If we got a tenth of an inch of rain, you couldn't get here,” he said. “It was a total mess.”
He assisted drivers with stuck vehicles, including on a night when it rained while guests were in crane viewing blinds. Eight vehicles leaving the parking lot succumbed to the mud.
Taddicken freed seven. One car required professional help. After that, local tow truck operators said they wouldn’t come back until the road dried out.
“The day-to-day decisions were pretty difficult,” he said. “How many critical decisions can you make in one day without going crazy?”
Crane season revenues, usually about one-third of Rowe's annual $1 million budget, dropped significantly.
Crane Trust roads held up better, but president Brice Krohn said, “The visitor appeal wasn't there. Because of the high water, the cranes weren't roosting on the river channel.” Some tours were canceled because one river blind was inaccessible.
About half of the trust's $1.8 million annual revenue comes during crane season. In 2019, visitor numbers were down 25 percent.
In 2020, it got worse.
Rowe Sanctuary opened crane blind tour reservations in January that year, expecting to host 30 guests in each blind for morning and evening tours March 7 through April 11. Four new discovery stations were prepared as blinds and year-round education centers.
But after COVID-19, guests and out-of-state crane season volunteers canceled their travel plans. The Nicolson Center and grounds closed on March 16. The Crane Trust, which had more than doubled its crane watching capacity with help from Grand Island Tourism, shut down even earlier, on March 11.
Rowe lost nearly 90% of its annual budget. The Crane Trust’s annual revenues fell 70%, though some losses were covered by federal COVID-relief funds.
“Everything was shut down through 2020 except the online gift shop,” Taddicken said.
In 2021, both sites scaled back their normal operations.
Trust officials had hoped to return to full programming, but lingering COVID dropped that to a third of normal.
Virtual crane watching helped, as new fiber optics enhanced the online viewing experience for people paying a $75 membership fee.
Rowe had severely limited 2021 river blind tours – one a day, with 10 people per blind. The Rowe Sanctuary’s website also has crane-related programs and virtual tours. Access to a live crane cam focused on river roosts is available at explore.org.
Summer youth camps and the Blues on the Banks fund-raiser were fully outdoors.
Taddicken and Krohn said donors' contributions allowed Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust to cover operating costs and continue conservation work the past three years.
Cranes are big business in central Nebraska. Crane season has an estimated $14.3 million annual economic impact on the Kearney-Grand Island area, according to a 2017 study led by the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
The area’s hotels, restaurants and other businesses that annually rely on crane tourists were wounded by the shutdowns, said Roger Jasnoch and Mellema, the Kearney and Grand Island visitors bureau directors.
And that, in turn, hurt local governments.
One example: Grand Island's March lodging tax collections dropped from $42,000 in 2018 to $20,000 in 2020. Jasnoch and Mellema said 2020 was the worst year because of crane season issues, plus cancellations of conventions and other events, and less travel in general.
Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust plan to host nearly normal 2022 crane season activities.
Rowe's river blinds will be at 75% capacity, with masks required on tours and in the Nicolson Center.
Masks are requested, but not required, at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.
“We overcame a lot of challenges the past three years,” Krohn said about his trust staff.
Rowe’s Taddicken agreed, but said there is one reliable thing, past, present and future. “As long as there is a river, as long as there is open water, the cranes will be here.”
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