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Photographing wildlife … from millions of years ago

Jan Vriesen's Miocene Mural
Jan Vriesen’s Miocene mural at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center depicts how some of the animals and vegetation of both riparian and plains habitats may have appeared in Nebraska during the Miocene epoch, which occurred 23.3-5.2 million years ago.

When out and about capturing photos and stories for NEBRASKAland and other Commission materials, my mind frequently wanders to what the region we now know as Nebraska’s Panhandle looked like long ago.

While at Fort Robinson State Park, I cannot help but think about how it must have appeared as an active military post in the 1800s — lively with U.S. Cavalry soldiers instead of today’s tourists. A drive through the ghost town of Orella on the serene and scenic northern Sioux County grasslands makes me think about the scene when it was a thriving community at the turn of the 20th century. When photographing our many unique landforms in the Panhandle, my mind drifts even further back, to when those buttes and bluffs began taking shape millions of years ago. (A collection of night photos of those landforms served as inspiration for a June 2016 magazine article “Rock Stars,” one of my favorite projects of all time.)

The newly expanded and renovated Wildcat Hills Nature Center
The newly renovated and expanded Wildcat Hills Nature Center stands as a premiere attraction and learning facility along Highway 71 south of Gering. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

A recent indoor photo assignment that first seemed a a bit boring spurred my imagination about as much as any past excursion, though. The task was to capture images of portions of a painted mural and other artwork at the newly expanded Wildcat Hills Nature Center south of Gering. The photos will appear on an interpretive sign explaining the mural, a conceptual piece by artist Jan Vriesen that shows the animals of Miocene fossils discovered in the region. It will be just one of many features highlighting natural wonders, from both today and long ago, when the exhibits take form in months to come.

No doubt, these remarkable megafauna mammals that occupied our region as many as 23.3 million years ago would prove to be an impressive sight if still living today. With my background, I can’t help but to believe they would be an ample food resource for hunters and incredible subjects for wildlife photographers. Not to mention, they might pose some challenges for the Commission’s wildlife division.

Hunters looking to put antlers on the wall surely would love pursuing Prosynthetroceras, a large deer-like creature referred to as “sling shot horns.”

Prosynthetroceras, by Jan Vriesen
Prosynthetroceras, by Jan Vriesen

In order to track one down, perhaps we would mount a Parahippus, a three-toed horse.

Parahippus, by Jan Vriesen.
Parahippus, by Jan Vriesen

Or, perhaps we would pack in gear on the slow-footed Moropus, another horse-like mammal. This one stood seven feet tall at the shoulders.

Moropus, by Jan Vriesen

What would landowners think of the Palaeocastor, the “dry land beaver”?

Palaeocastor, by Jan Vriesen
Palaeocastor, by Jan Vriesen

And do you suppose there would be any controversy surrounding carnivorous predators such as Ysengrenia, known as “bear dog?”

Ysengrinia
Ysengrinia, or “bear dog,” preying on a a three-toed horse known as Archaeohippus, by Jan Vriesen

Or what about the “younger” saber-toothed cats of roughly 10,000 years ago, which have not only a painting but an impressive fossil on display at the center.

Saber-toothed cats, by Jan Vriesen
Saber-toothed cats, by Jan Vriesen

The Wildcat Hills Nature Center serves as the southern gateway to the Fossil Freeway, a corridor of seven impressive sites devoted to the prehistory of the High Plains. Each is well worth the visit.

By looking at the wildlife of yesteryear, it seems we can gain a greater appreciation for the animals that roam the Panhandle today. I know that was the case for me and my 10-year-old daughter, Kiera, who assisted me on the shoot.

We are surely not the first to have the imagination stimulated by this artwork, a feature of the center since shortly after the building’s original construction years ago. When complete, the new exhibits of the nature center are sure to pay apt tribute to many wonders of the natural world … regardless of when they existed on the landscape.

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About justin haag

Justin Haag serves the Panhandle as a public information officer for the Commission, also serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and enjoy introducing their two children to the many outdoor recreational opportunities of the Pine Ridge region.

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