Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Watchable Wildlife

If you have read more than a few blog posts here at Nebraska Outback, you know that I am all about the wonderful stuff there is to see and do here in Nebraska, especially that which can be found in the great outdoors. Just how many pictures of the Nebraska Sandhills are on here anyway?

It seems I'm not the only one, and it also seems that we are on the right track. Nebraska is one of the top birding sites in the world, with more than 434 species having been identified. We are on one of the major flyways, plus our ecosystem is a blend of wet east and arid west, with varied topography (I'll say it again - Nebraska is NOT flat!), including bluffs, prairie, glacial canyons and river breaks. We get a wide variety of year-round residents plus more either summering or wintering here, then of course there is the migration!

The staff of the North Platte/Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau along with Cody Odell of the Quality Inn and Suites/Sandhills Convention Center and Tom Breen of Platte River Adventures attended the Watchable Wildlife Workshop at the Lake McConaughy Water Interpretation Center in Ogallala on Thursday. Several partners including the Western Nebraska Tourism Coalition and the South Platte United Chambers of Commerce hosted Jim Mallman from Watchable Wildlife, Inc. for a full-day workshop that included hands-on planning exercises to capitalize on the amazing diversity of wildlife and outdoor opportunities that are available in central and western Nebraska.In 2002, wildlife viewing surpassed both hunting and fishing as the number one outdoor activity in the U.S. The most recent numbers are from 2006 and show that wildlife viewing added $45.7 billion in real dollars to the U.S. economy, followed by fishing with $42.2 billion and hunting with $22.9 billion each year. These of course, are just a niches in the greater contribution of tourism, which is estimated to be the number one world-wide industry by 2011, with spending at $9.3 trillion.

Nebraska is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the explosion in popularity of wildlife viewing. The number one species for viewing is the Bald Eagle, which winters in the Platte River Valley in significant numbers. The number one migration activity is the annual Sandhill Crane migration, again which occurs right here in the Platte River Valley. Other significant wildlife watching activities include the annual Prairie Chicken mating rites and viewing of large mammals such as Big Horn Sheep, Elk, Antelope and Deer, many of which can be found within the critical 75-mile radius of North Platte.

The shift in outdoor recreation away from hunting and toward fishing and wildlife viewing can be attributed to the trend in tourism which shows that women make 80% of all travel decisions. Statistically, women don’t hunt in large numbers, therefore activities such as fishing, camping, hiking, birdwatching, canoeing and kayaking are seeing explosive growth.

This is the view from the patio of the Water Interpretation Center - just look at all of that water in Big Mac! The North Platte area faces several challenges in making our area user-friendly for this huge market.

  1. Identifying the opportunities – What state recreation areas, wildlife management areas and other public/private land is available for wildlife watching? What times of year are the best for viewing? What activities and species can be expected to be seen at what times of year? When do certain flowers bloom?
  2. Education – When the phone rings at the CVB, Chamber, hotel or attraction, will the person answering the phone be able to tell the caller what we have? Will someone asking at a convenience store be directed to where the wildlife can be seen?
  3. Materials – The two rules of thumb that Jim Mallman pounded into our heads were 1) If you’re going to produce printed material, DO IT RIGHT or don’t do it. 2) Don’t produce any printed material without a corresponding marketing plan to distribute it. Yes, we do need maps, brochures, booklets, lists to help visitors experience the wildlife in our area, but it will take a cooperative effort to make sure we do it right.
  4. Getting the information in the hands of the visitor – We already know that most vacation planning is done via the internet. How is the best way to incorporate wildlife watching information into the community websites? What is the best format for this information to be user-friendly to the visitor?
  5. Development – Are there areas that need improvement? Viewing blinds? Trails? Viewing stands? Are there existing areas that need better signage?
The Water Interpretation Center has a small pond (also with a good view of Lake McConaughy), where our instructor said he spotted 18 species in just a short period of time. If they had a viewing blind, he would have seen a lot more.
When considering how to market our wildlife to visitors, communities need to learn to think like a cruise ship. When a consumer wants to book a cruise to Mexico, they simply type the name of their destination into their favorite search engine, and voila! All of the cruise lines servicing that destination pop up on their screen and all she has to do is click and book. Imagine if all of the wildlife viewing opportunities within 75 miles of North Platte were available in a single place. A potential visitor searches for Prairie Chickens, North Platte pops up on her screen, she drills down a little and there is a package that will provide lodging, meals and a contact or even a booking for the outfitter providing the Prairie Chicken viewing. Oh yes, and there are “add-ons” available for other wildlife viewing opportunities and tourist activities while she’s here.

Many of the most active seasons for wildlife viewing are on the shoulders of the peak summer tourist season. Bald Eagles are in the area December through February; Prairie Chickens dance in early May; Sandhill Crane migration is in February and March; Other waterfowl and shore birds also migrate during the spring. According to Mallman, to help marginal main street businesses thrive, all the tourism industry has to do is provide an additional fifteen days of profit on the shoulder season. This is where aggressively and correctly developing and marketing wildlife viewing tourism can have a real impact on our communities.

The Interpretation Center isn't just about the view either. There is indeed a huge circular aquarium in the center. Unfortunately, I am not a skilled enough photographer to get a good picture without the reflections on the glass ruining everything. I guess you'll just have to visit it yourself to see what lurks below the surface.
The good news is that visitors involved in wildlife watching are the most affluent, most environmentally conscious demographic of tourists. They are always more concerned with not disturbing the resource and leaving the area better than they found it than the average tourist. They will spend more money and stay longer, and they COMMUNICATE! If you have something amazing, they will tell others in their network about it.

So where do we go from here? We go forward! We begin to seek out partners who can help us identify the resources and opportunities that we have. We organize to develop a plan. So are you or do you know a birder, hunter, angler, photographer, kayaker, canoer, boater, hiker or anyone else who avidly enjoys the outdoors? Do you have (or are you) a contact for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, city, county or state government, parks and recreation department, law enforcement? Are you a business owner, member of the media, member of the hospitality industry, a concerned citizen interested in becoming involved?

There is also a whole wing dedicated to the Kingsley Dam and the importance of water to our ecosystems and of course, the Ogallala Aquifer. Here is a shot of a photograph showing the building of the dam. What an amazing undertaking. I highly recommend a visit.
This won’t be an overnight process. Watchable Wildlife, Inc. has wonderful resources available to help us get started, so we’re not in this alone, nor do we have to recreate the wheel in our planning process. While daunting, the prospect of moving in this direction isn’t impossible. If you’re interested in becoming involved, not only do we need to hear from you, you should also make plans to attend the National Watchable Wildlife Conference scheduled for October 5-7 in Kearney. This is a great opportunity, very close to home, to learn more about the possibilities for our area in enhancing and promoting our watchable wildlife.

While this article was written specifically with Nebraska and our own little corner of it in mind, the same is true everywhere. For example, did you know that New Jersey is a wildlife watching hot spot? If they can do it there, it can be done anywhere (wait, isn't that a song about New York?). Right now I am looking at everything around me with an eye toward what species could be viewed, and how the area could be correctly developed to make it more appealing.
I'm not the only one either. This was the third of three workships Mr. Mallman conducted in Nebraska, and all were attended by 30-40 people. I hope everyone is able to come together and create some wonderful viewing opportunities. We need to find a way to share with others the beauty that surrounds us.
Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

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