Mountain-Prairie Region  Partners for Fish & Wildlife





What are the Sandhills?

Sandhills mapThe Nebraska Sandhills is a unique area, both in size and appearance. Native grassland covers 19,600 square miles of wind-deposited sand dunes. Its geology makes the area rich for wildlife, water and ranching.

The Land

19,600 square miles
Largest sand dune formation in America
95% grassland
1.3 million acres of wetlands
1 billion acre-feet of groundwater
2.4 million acre-feet of spring-fed streamflow discharged annually

Landscape Ecology

Wetland restoration The Sandhills Habitat Program is an ecosystem management approach based on an understanding of the Sandhills' geologic and economic forces that shape the natural environment of the region. Without knowing the land and the people, management is ineffective.

The sand dunes' influence on the area's hydrology is the basis of the Sandhills ecology. Hundreds of feet of course sand and gravel lie below the surface and contain one of the largest aquifers in North America. The dunes act like a giant sponge that quickly absorbs precipitation, allowing very little to run off. One fourth to one-half of the annual rainfall percolates downward to the groundwater. In the lower interdunal valleys, the water table is elevated above the surface and forms many of the 1.3 million acres of wetlands scattered throughout the area.

Groundwater movement is relatively unrestricted (up to 500 feet per year) and excess water is discharged into valleys, wetlands, and streams. As wetlands begin to fill, they buffer or restrict groundwater discharge and maintain the high water table. Plants located in the valleys tap into the constant water source and produce dense stands of vegetation for wildlife and the ranching industry. In contrast, groundwater discharged into a drained valley maintains a continual flow of water from the area. Ninety percent of annual stream flow (2.4 million acre-feet) is groundwater.

Wetland drainage began in the early 1900's to provide additional winter hay for livestock. The linear orientation of the dunes allowed ditches to connect from one valley to the next until they reached natural streams. Drainage extended the reach of natural streams and affected the balance of groundwater and wetlands. Wetlands that once buffered the discharge of groundwater were no longer effective and a continual discharge of groundwater occurs into the ditches. The added flows cause natural streams to adjust their shape to wider and deeper channels. As the streams cut downward, the lower streambeds capture more groundwater, lower the local water table, drain adjacent wetlands, and lower the productivity of the valleys.

Effects of Stream Degradation on the Local Water Table

Wetland diagrams showing changes in the water table

(A) Normal Sandhill stream.
(B) Downcutting of stream bed has captured more groundwater and
       lowered the water table associated with subirrigated meadows
       and wetlands.

Cultivation attempts in the early 1900's failed because the semi-arid climate did not provide adequate rainfall to sustain row crops. Today, abundant groundwater supplies and center pivot irrigation has made it possible to irrigate the porous and erodible sands. The sandy soils require large amounts of water and fertilizer to grow crops. The excess water leaches agrichemicals downward to the local water table. Domestic wells are becoming contaminated with nitrates and pesticides. Pumping water from deep depths to the surface has flooded the local water table and increased stream flows. Thus, adding to the impact of wetland drainage and channelization.


Central Flyway migration
720 species of plants
314 species of animals
24-27 species of migratory birds of management concern visit the area

Ecosystem Management

Wetland along a hayfieldRanching has proven to be the best economic and environmental use of the Sandhills. The natural resources which make the area suitable for ranching also benefit a wide diversity of flora and fauna. In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an ecosystem approach to resource management in the Sandhills. A Sandhills Coordinator was hired to bring a variety of people together to share their common interests and to develop a management plan acceptable to ranching and the environment.

The group, called the Sandhills Task Force, drafted the Sandhills Management Plan which reflects their goal and management approach for the Sandhills. In 1992, the plan was signed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Task Force members.

The Goal

To enhance the sandhill wetland-grassland ecosystem in a way that sustains profitable private ranching, wildlife and vegetation diversity, and associated water supplies.


The Sandhills Management Plan identified six strategies to help attain the established goal. The strategies are not all equal in need or value, but do give a full compliment of tools to accomplish specific tasks:


Range tour conducted by the Sandhills Task Force Education is cost effective and can have a long-term effect on the land. The Service has joined with other partners to improve people's awareness of the Sandhill resources. Over four dozen presentations have been given to a variety of audiences, ranging from school and civic groups to professional organizations. The Sandhills Habitat Program has also appeared in newspapers, magazines, and television programs. One chapter in the book "Prairie Conservation: Preserving North America's Endangered Ecosystem" focuses on the Program as one example of ecosystem management. Resource management workshops and training courses have been given to both ranchers and conservation personnel.

Technical Assistance

Technical assistance is the most active part of the Sandhills Program. It not only involves the work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but other agencies as well. Partners have included landowners, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA), several local Natural Resource Districts, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, The Nature Conservancy, county governments, and the EPA.

Partnership agreements have been written to improve a diversity of habitat.  Wetlands have been restored or enhanced, riparian habitat on streams has been improved, and fencing and planned grazing have improved uplands.

The Sandhills Habitat Program has provided technical assistance to landowners and various agencies which have given them a better understanding of the hydrology and grassland ecology. The decisions they have made with this information have affected thousands of acres.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have an active acquisition program in the Sandhills. But we have been involved in assisting other organizations to solve resource issues. The Task Force has assisted The Nature Conservancy in the restoration of two fens. The Service has worked with the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to mitigate wetlands in the Sandhills.


No actions have been taken either by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Task Force on legislative issues.

Lease Agreements

Lease agreements have not been done by the Service, but we have actively worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to incorporate their lease program in wildlife projects.

Financial Support

Efforts are continuing to obtain outside support for conservation projects. One such project obtained restoration funds from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. The project, sponsored by the Task Force, brought matching money and support from local landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Upper Elkhorn Natural Resource District, Nebraska Cattlemen, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and local County Commissioners.

"Win-Win" Solutions

The Sandhills Management Plan was built on the belief that "win-win" solutions can be found if landowners and agencies joined together. The Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has been the backbone of the success experienced in the Sandhills. Nebraska Partners for Fish and Wildlife has provided funds and staff to coordinate and complete projects in education and technical assistance. The types of projects have varied to meet specific needs of landowners and communities.

"I've never seen government work like this. We get along real good. This was a unique opportunity to work with them instead of against them. We're trying to get along, with the land, with the wildlife, with the government."

John Lee, Rancher
Brownlee, Nebraska

". . . This is a complete ecosystem management plan developed specifically for the Sandhills of Nebraska. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has handled this area perfectly, in my opinion, and the success of the activity verifies that opinion. The Service worked with the ranchers and wildlife interests in the area to determine the needs of both groups . . ."

J. Robert Kerrey
Former United States Senator