Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Mountain-Prairie Region

Welcome to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

East meets west, north meets south... six different plant communities converge along the Niobrara River on Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, thereby providing habitat for a rich and unusual diversity of wildlife. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is 19,131 acres in size and is located in north-central Nebraska along the scenic Niobrara River: The Refuge, once a frontier military fort, supports an exceptional diversity of plants and wildlife representative of the northern Great Plains and geographic regions east, west, north, and south of here.

Fort Niobrara NWR is one of over 540 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System ---- a network of lands set aside and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically for wildlife. The Refuge System is a living heritage, conserving wildlife and habitat for people today and generations to come.

View the March 10, 2009 Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Elk and Deer Management Plan And Environmental Assessment

A History of the Landscape

The land and water of Fort Niobrara NWR have sustained a rich diversity of wildlife for thousands of years. Fossils from more than 20 extinct mammal species, including the long-jawed mastodon, giant bison, and three-toed horse, have been unearthed on the Refuge. These animals roamed the area from 13 million years ago through the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago.

Two centuries ago, the Refuge and surrounding area was a sea of grass, unbroken except for wooded streams and rivers. Low rainfall, sandy soil, periodic fires, and high winds limited the establishment of trees and the growth of some grasses. Magnificent herds of bison and elk inhabited the area along with sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens, prairie dogs, wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears, and other wildlife. Native Americans followed the bison herds, using them to meet their food, clothing, shelter; and spiritual needs.

As the nation's frontier moved westward in the late 1800s, market hunting and habitat loss caused once plentiful wildlife to decline dramatically. Bison nearly became extinct. Native Americans were moved onto reservations. Fort Niobrara Military Reservation was established in 1879 to keep peace between the settlers and the Sioux Indians and to control cattle rustlers and horse thieves. During its 27 years of existence, Fort Niobrara was a quiet place, the soldiers fought no battles, but were kept busy maintaining the fort and drilling. The fort was abandoned in 1906 and made into a remount station for the cavalry. By 1912 even this activity was discontinued and the fort dismantled. All that remains is one building (the red barn), old foundations, and earth works. The army closed the fort in 1906 but used it to supply fresh horses for the calvary until 1911.

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Refuge Establishment

In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt and private conservation organizations, such as the National Audubon Society and American Bison Society, were becoming increasingly concerned with the exploitation of wildlife and their habitats on the Great Plains and elsewhere. As a result, an Executive Order was signed on January 11, 1912, establishing Fort Niobrara as a "preserve and breeding ground for native birds." Later that year, the Refuge's purpose was expanded to include the conservation of bison and elk herds representative of those that once roamed the Great Plains.

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A Diversity of Plants and Wildlife

Fort Niobrara NWR has a unique blend of topography, soils, and rock formations, along with differing exposures to sun, wind, and moisture. This mixture creates a wide variety of habitats that support an incredible diversity of plants and wildlife. The Niobrara River flows eastward across the Refuge for 9 miles, cutting deep canyons into the limestone rocks that underlie the Sandhills. Waterfalls occur where seeps and springs flow over layers of hard rock.

Niobrara River

(Seventy-six miles of the Niobrara River, including the portion that flows through the Refuge, are included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems.)


Six major plant communities converge along the Niobrara River and are situated according to their habitat needs and tolerances. Sandhill prairie grows atop sand dunes south of the river and mixed-grass prairie is found on hard tablelands to the north. Rocky Mountain coniferous forest occurs on dry, rocky soils and steep eroding cliffs. Plants from the eastern deciduous forest, northern boreal forest, and tallgrass prairie plant communities inhabit water-rich areas such as the river floodplain and canyon walls.



Mail sharp-tailed grouse

(Male sharp-tailed grouse displaying on their breeding ground in the spring.)

Over 230 species of birds are attracted to Fort Niobrara NWR for resting, feeding, or nesting. The rich bird life results from the diverse habitats found here. Also, because the Refuge is near the geographic center of North America, it is crossed in many directions by migrating birds. Many song bird species, such as the golden-winged warbler, stop on the Refuge during their migration between wintering and breeding grounds. Others, such as wood ducks and grasshopper sparrows, come here to breed. Sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens are year-round residents of Fort Niobrara NWR that depend upon the taller, denser native roosting cover, and the seeds, leaves, fruits, and insects for food.


Bison and Elk

Approximately 350 bison and 100 elk are managed on Fort Niobrara NWR to conserve herds representative of those that once roamed the Great Plains. Many of the natural behaviors and traits of these hardy animals exist today on the Refuge.

For example, the bison breeding season, or rut, takes place on Fort Niobrara NWR in July and August. Adult bison males, aloof most of the year, drift among the cow-calf groups.  The bulls bellow hoarsely, paw the earth, and chase and fight each other.Weighing around 2,000 pounds, bulls between 7 and 12 years of age usually dominate the courtship and breeding ritual.Calves are born the following spring.

Other Wildlife

In addition to the wildlife already mentioned, 48 other mammal species, 24 reptile and amphibian species, and several fish species are found on the Refuge in the complex mixing of wet and dry habitats.

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Refuge Management

Management of Fort Niobrara NWR focuses on conserving native birds, bison, elk, and the biological diversity of the area.  Prescribed fire and planned periods of rest, or non-disturbance, are used in combination with grazing by bison and elk in an effort to mimic the historic processes that helped shape the native plant communities of the Refuge.

Bison are an ideal management “tool” because they range over large areas, eat and trample a variety of prairie plants, and turn the soil with their wallowing.  This disturbance helps keep native prairie communities diverse and healthy.  Refuge lands, however, can only support a certain number of bison.  To keep the bison herd in balance with its food supply and meet the habitat requirements of other wildlife, about 120 bison are sold at auction or donated each fall.

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Refuge Regulations

To protect the wildlife, habitats, and historic resources of Fort Niobrara NWR and to make your visit more enjoyable, the following regulations are strictly enforced: 

  • The Refuge is open to the public during daylight hours only.
  • Vehicles must stay on designated, graveled roadways. 
  • River floating on the Refuge is allowed downstream from Cornell Dam only.  No more than five float tubes can be tied together.
  • Fishing is allowed on the Minnechaduza Creek and along the Niobrara River downstream from Cornell Dam.
  • Prohibited items and activities include:  
  • alcoholic beverages;
  • firearms;
  • fireworks;
  • high volume radios;
  • any device capable of shooting or directing a projectile or liquid at another person or wildlife;
  • camping;
  • open pit fires;
  • hunting;
  • extreme sports such as ice climbing, rock climbing, and sport rappelling;
  • and collecting plants, animals, rocks, or historical artifacts.

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Last updated: November 29, 2012