Thursday, November 5, 2020

Pawnee National Grassland

I'd never heard of National Grasslands in the U.S. until a few years ago and it has only been within the last couple of months that I've learned something about them as I planned our trip to Colorado and Kansas. 

The National Geographic website has a section called "Grasslands explained."  Grasslands are areas where grasses are the dominant vegetation, they are the middle ground between forests and deserts and constitute about 30% of the world's land area. They go by different names in different parts of the world. In the U.S. they're called prairies, in South America they're called pampas, in Central Eurasia they're steppes and in Africa they're savannas. 

In the U.S. the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s led to the creation of the Soil Conservation Service in 1933 and to National Grasslands in 1937 which are administered similarly to National Forests and are administered in conjunction with National Forests. There are 20 National Grasslands in the U.S. and all but three (one in Oregon, one in California and one in Idaho) are in the Great Plains. They are generally open for hunting, grazing, mineral extraction and recreation. 
The two darker areas are the Pawnee National Grassland with a western unit and an eastern unit. It is all in the state of Colorado, but abutting the border of Wyoming and Nebraska in the eastern unit. 
On our recent trip to visit the high point of Nebraska, we had to go through or near the Pawnee National Grassland. It is 193,060 acres within an area of 30 by 60 miles and separated into two units. I was expecting to see miles and miles of grassland, similar to the miles and miles of trees in a National Forest. However, instead we saw miles and miles of fenced fields, lots of farms and nothing that resembled what I expected to see. I was hugely disappointed. A photo of a map I took makes it look like the grassland is not a solid area of federal administered land. It looks like a checkerboard of federal grassland intermixed with state land and private land. 
This is a different map of the Pawnee National Grassland. The green is National Grassland, the violet is state land, the pink is experimental range and the white is private land. The western unit appears to have a higher concentration of National Grassland than the eastern unit. The dark pink lines represent the roads we drove. The western pink line is along the road that is the eastern boundary of the western unit. The town of Grover in the center is in the strip of private land between the two units. 
We visited two areas that appeared to be best for wildlife. The Crow Valley Recreation Area is just above Briggsdale in the southeastern corner of the western unit. It is identified as an oasis on the prairie with cottonwoods and small meadows surrounded by short-grass prairie. It has a campground and is a good place for birding with over 200 species of birds identified there. In fact there is a 21 mile Bird Tour auto route in the western unit nearby which we did not have time to do.  
The Birding auto tour is identified in blue and Crow Valley Recreation Area is identified, just above Briggsdale. 

What I believe is a Fremont cottonwood (leave just above and the tree about it) in Crow Valley. 

What I believe is an interior sandbar willow, with leaves below, in Crow Valley. 

Elm leaves and the tree below, in Crow Valley. 

The best example of the short-grass prairie in Pawnee Grassland is Pawnee Buttes where grazing and intensive agriculture are limited. It is identified as the best area to find wildlife as well as the most notable geologic features. The Chalk Bluffs, right near them, is a raptor nesting site. There is a hiking trail to the Pawnee Buttes which we did not have time to take, but we did see them from both the north and south sides in our drive. 
Pawnee Buttes from the north side.

A closer view of the eastern butte.

A view from the southern side. The Chalk Bluffs are visible to the left. 

The eastern butte from the south side with the Cedar Creek Wind Farm in the background, with 397 wind turbines. 

Chalk Bluffs and the western butte. 

Chalk Bluffs.
We did not see any wildlife within the Pawnee Grassland, but did see three different sets of pronghorns just outside.


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  2. I thought those bluffs were really cool. They were the best part of the drive for me. I'd love to understand their geology a little better.