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. 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.
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 (Fort) was a quiet place, the soldiers fought no battles, but were kept busy maintaining the fort and conducting military drills. The army abandoned the Fort in 1906, and it was made into a remount station for the cavalry. The Fort was used to supply fresh horses for the cavalry until 1911. By 1912 this activity was discontinued and the Fort dismantled. All that remains of the original Fort is one building (the red barn), old foundations, and earth works.
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.