- Associated Press - Saturday, April 16, 2016

OVERTON, Neb. (AP) - A white feathered head was barely visible in a large stick nest high in a leafless Jeffrey Island tree on a Tuesday morning draped in haze from smoke carried by south winds from a Kansas wildfire.

The Kearney Hub (https://bit.ly/1S9oz64 ) reports that as Mark Peyton drove his white Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District pickup slowly toward the nest, the bald eagle parent spread its wings and joined its mate in the sky circling the nest. After stopping to sit awhile, one on a branch above the nest and one in a nearby tree, they circled again.

Peyton, CNPPID’s senior biologist in charge of the restoration and management of Jeffrey Island’s nearly 4,000 acres, said he hadn’t seen the eagles so flighty before. He often parks much closer to the nest and has walked with his dog near the tree.

The pair has nested on Jeffrey Island for five years, including the last two at the current site about 1½ miles west of the Interstate 80 interchange south of Overton. They produced a chick each year except 2015.

The nesting bald eagles are a bonus for habitat specialists whose focus has been on Jeffrey Island restoration work that creates Platte River-related habitat better suited for birds federally listed as endangered and threatened: migrating whooping cranes and nesting least terns and piping plovers.

CNPPID officials signed a lease-purchase agreement for the property with the Joe Jeffrey family in 1999 and assumed full ownership on Dec. 7, 2015.

Peyton, who has worked for the district full time since 1994, said improving habitat for the protected species was a condition to renew CNPPID’s hydropower plant operating license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The new 40-year license was issued on July 29, 1998, after a 14-year process.

That was a year after federal, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska officials agreed to develop the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program to help all entities in the basin with federal licenses, leases, permits or funding comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The first Jeffrey Island projects included removing trees from about 300 acres on the east end and constructing nearly seven miles of linear sloughs to mimic old natural channels. Peyton said that soon after the sloughs were built, there was flooding in 1999 almost to the interstate and the area filled with sand.

Grazing goats owned by a Bassett rancher also were key players in the initial clearing of unwanted vegetation because of their appetites for small willows, dogwood, red cedar and leafy spurge.

Peyton said chemical spraying was used the first year to kill musk thistles and other noxious weeds, but Central managers didn’t want to spray every year in an area with sandy soils and water. So they reached an agreement with Chad Peterson for 2,500 goats to graze for two years and then his goats and cattle for five years.

Peyton said concerns grew toward the end of the seven years about overgrazing with both species and the difficulty of managing such high-intensity grazing. “It became so high maintenance that it wasn’t worth the money,” he said.

The Jeffrey family had used open range-type grazing before the lease agreement with CNPPID, Peyton said, with most of the cattle confined by one exterior fence.

Grazing days and numbers are limited now. There are 217 steers currently in a west end area. Peyton said leases are limited to April 1-July 1 for cool-season grasses and then back on Sept.1 for warm-season grasses.

One third of the grassland acres are rested each year. He said one result is a greater variety of ground-nesting birds.

During a wet 2015, the east end’s sandy river bottom where so many trees initially were removed flooded again. The foot or so of water meant no grazing for the lease holder and rebuilding projects for owners of all but one duck blind, Peyton said.

Drainage tubes were installed in some sloughs to allow habitat managers to drive around the area.

Bids for 2016 grazing leases weren’t high enough to warrant the cost of building interior fences, Peyton said, so it was decided to do a controlled burn. However, burn conditions never were quite right - a north wind is required so smoke doesn’t blow across the interstate - and the sandy soil makes burning difficult.

The sloughs attract geese and ducks, meadowlarks sing from the grasses, killdeers hang around wet spots, and sandhill cranes gather near Jeffrey Island during spring migration season in areas with more shallow water. “Pelicans are everywhere,” Peyton said, when asked about several that briefly flew overhead Tuesday morning.

However, none of those species are the habitat managers’ targets.

Peyton said the only confirmed whooping cranes on Jeffrey Island were a pair seen in January a couple years ago, a strange time for birds that migrate in the spring and fall. A family group was confirmed on Platte Program land to the south of Jeffrey Island and there have been sightings on Nebraska Public Power District’s Cottonwood Ranch between Elm Creek and Overton over the years.

Nesting terns and plovers pretty much ignore river sandbars and two areas of bare sand and gravel along the river channel at the west end of Jeffrey Island. “The terns will fly up and down the river from the sandpits” near Overton and Lexington, Peyton said, referring to their preferred nesting habitat.

“Terns are colony nesters and they seem to get along. Plovers are territorial … they will kill other chicks, so you have to have a lot of space for them to spread out,” he said.

The greatest number of fledged chicks over the years, especially piping plovers, have come from nests on Lake McConaughy’s sandy beaches. Peyton said those sites have been threatened by high lake levels the past few years and the many visitors drawn to a nearly full lake.

In 2015, the lake rose 14 feet in May alone. He said conservationists tried to move the nests but could do so only 1 meter at a time, which meant the lake caught up with the process.

Limited beach space makes bird and visitor conflicts inevitable. Peyton said that during last summer’s three-day July 4 weekend that attracted 60,000 visitors per day, the conflicts included revelers who dragged a cooler through a fenced off nesting site.

He said there aren’t enough law enforcement officers or monitors to watch over all the tern and plover nests.

So why go to all the expense and trouble for a few birds? “Very few people who ask that question are looking for an answer that will convince them,” Peyton replied.

The simple answer is the Endangered Species Act requires it.

It originally was passed in 1973 by a huge majority vote in Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon. Peyton said it may be the most popular law ever, at least among urban Americans not directly affected by the changes required.

CNPPID officials allow limited public access to Jeffrey Island. There are leases for bird and deer hunting, and use requests have been approved for local fishermen, mushroom hunters and organizations such as saddle clubs and Boy Scout troops.

“If it’s not going to interfere with the management of the property, the answer is probably going to be yes as long as they are not making secondary income,” Peyton said.


Information from: Kearney Hub, https://www.kearneyhub.com/

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