Thanks to caring farmers, foresighted ranchers and pioneering conservationists, wildlife and agriculture thrive together in the rugged, harsh and beautiful landscape known as the Wildcat Hills.
For those who have found themselves lost in its sharp but scenic vistas, it is more than thorns and burrs that lodge in their shoestrings, tug at their heartstrings and pull them back here.
Seven miles southeast of Gering at Bead Mountain Ranch, a golden eagle rests on a rocky ledge as if watching over what locals say is a Native American burial ground. This canyon is just as sacred to Scottsbluff resident Bob Smith, who leads the way into the canyon with the energy of a man half his age. We approach the cusp of the massive fissure and follow a fresh set of bobcat tracks over the precipice.
Near the bottom, a faint trickle emerges from the canyon wall. Smith is sure this is a natural seep, a small but life-sustaining oasis. Near the water’s edge, a massive cottonwood tree thrives, sheltered and nourished here in this otherwise arid plain.
“It’s gotta be one of the largest in the state,” Smith said of the tree, stretching out his arms as if embracing it. A half dozen people with hands joined would be unlikely to encircle it. “It’s been beaten by the wind and battered by lighting. It’s a survivor,” he said.
The muddy hoof prints of mule deer and elk surround this spring just inches from where the bobcat pounced on its most recent meal.
Smith discovers evidence of a past life, a stony fragment chipped in deliberate fashion. Its hand-engineered edges are still razor-like after a century or more spent in the ground. Perhaps the shaper of the stone tool harvested a meal for his family here – letting his handmade arrow fly while crouched in the undergrowth of this much younger cottonwood tree. Nearby, the scattered remains of a Prohibition-era whiskey bottle provide archaeological evidence of a more recent culture.
As the morning air warms, moisture rains down off the cottonwood’s large leaves and is quickly soaked up by the thirsty ground below. A bedded muley turns its ears toward the downpour, a tom turkey calls in the distance and after surveying us from the air, the eagle reclaims its perch. At Bead Mountain Ranch, the circle of life is intact.
As Clive Ostenberg knowingly approached death, memories of a full life spent exploring the northwestern Nebraska wilderness were always in his thoughts. He often worried that the development he’d seen marching steadily toward his favorite outdoor haunts would one day destroy them and interrupt the order of nature.
He shared his concerns with family and friends. When he died, more than a dozen of Ostenberg’s friends came together. They told stories of remembrance, then went to work to make sure his estate would benefit the land, the wildlife and the way of life he enjoyed. The group of concerned friends formed Platte River Basin Environments.
They searched for special places to purchase, restore, protect and then open up for the public to appreciate.
These weren’t biologists or scientists, but bankers, farmers and factory workers. Their methods may not have started out as entirely scientific or even safe (at one point a member was held out the window of an airplane flying over the Platte River as he took pictures of habitat), but it was all fueled by a wild passion for the natural world. Today the group has helped to purchase, preserve and open tens of thousands of acres in the Wildcat Hills and along the North Platte River Valley.
“Papa said if anything ever happened to him that we were supposed to call you,” said the mournful voice on the phone. The call was to Platte River Basin Environments, and founding member Hod Kosman picked up the phone.
He knew Jim Lippincott – someone everyone considered a good steward of his land. Lippincott’s land was a combination of uplands and marshes south of the North Platte River near Morrill.
When Lippincott died in an auto accident, his family honored his wish and made that telephone call.
Lippincott hoped his land would remain as a haven for wildlife in perpetuity.
Money from Ostenberg’s estate, combined with funds from government agencies, helped Platte River Basin Environments purchase the land.
The Lippincott parcel now is known as Kiowa Wetlands Wildlife Management Area, named for a tribe that once inhabited the area.
More than half of the 506-acre tract serves as a waterfowl refuge.
Since its founding in 1989, the group has completed projects on 30,000 more acres. The group aims to protect unique habitats and wildlife, and make the land available to the public. The properties stay on the tax rolls and are farmed or ranched by local families. This ensures that agriculture and wildlife can coexist.
Kosman attributes the group’s success to the more than two dozen agencies that it cooperates with, plus a healthy outpouring of individual support.
When a workday is scheduled, up to 150 volunteers show up to help remove invasive Russian olive trees, repair boundary fences, maintain parking areas and put up signs.
From his office in Scottsbluff, Kosman recalls one volunteer effort. A bighorn sheep lamb was stranded on a high ledge, couldn’t get off, and the coyotes were closing in. The Gering Volunteer Fire Department showed up to help. When the frightened lamb jumped from the ledge, they caught it smack-dab in the middle of their screen and walked it back up the hill to its mother.
That small act of kindness is but one of many resulting from one man’s dying wish combined with the sweat and hard work of many others.