Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in northcentral Nebraska and National Elk Refuge in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of Wyoming both are celebrating their 100th anniversaries this year. Fort Niobrara was designated as a refuge by executive order on Jan. 11, 1912, as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. Its purpose was expanded later that year to include bison and elk. National Elk Refuge was established by an act of Congress on Aug. 10, 1912, to provide winter habitat and preserve the Jackson elk herd.
Below are essaysby Alan Whited, refuge manager at Fort Niobrara, and Lori Iverson, outreach and visitor services specialist at National Elk Refugeabout what makes these two classic Western refuges extraordinary.
Fort Niobrara Refuge
The sandhills of northern Nebraska are one of the bestkept secrets in the country. Fort Niobrara Refuge is a special place where you can hear the sounds of the Niobrara River (a National Wild and Scenic River) flowing through the canyons, buffalo bellowing, elk bugling and prairie dogs barking as eagles fly lazily above and below you. Its a place where on horseback in the spring you can stop and see the waves of a tan ocean rolling across the sandhills, while being overwhelmed by the sweet smell of wild plum blooming, turkeys gobbling, prairie grouse dancing and newly born bison calves bouncing around their mothers, all on the same day. The Fort is also a place where you can see northern, eastern, southern and western plant and animal species occupying the same space. Its most special attributeas is the case with all refuges, in my opinionis the people who work here. The staff at Fort Niobrara has approximately 335 years of cumulative conservation experience, primarily with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All of our employees have bought into our purpose, take tremendous pride in what we do, and definitely will leave a part of themselves at the Fort forever.
– Alan Whited
Bison on the prairie help make Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska a special place, writes refuge manager Alan Whited.
National Elk Refuge
Last August, I responded with a fire crew to a report of a smoldering tree on the northwest side of the refuge. Ironically, it was a repeat of the previous August, when lightning stuck in the same location. The lightning and I have something in common: Its my favored spot on the refuge, tooa place where I find myself wanting to return. The hillside is interspersed with sagebrush and aspen trees and accessed by a rough twotrack road used primarily by seasonal irrigators in the summer and hunters in the fall. From that vantage point, one can look down onto grasslands dotted with sagebrush, the swells of the Gros Ventre River and, occasionally, a herd of bison. Cars on the busy highway are hidden from sight. Far from development, the only sounds are leaves quaking in the breeze and the songs of birds. The 25,000acre refuge is a stronghold in the Jackson Hole Valley, an area awash in tourism and demands for development. Without protected places like the refuge, the valleys rich diversity of wildlife and supporting habitat would face additional challenges with possible longterm impactsa trend that began a century ago. The Services mission here has never been more important than it is today. We had some thunder and a few flashes of lightning just yesterday afternoon. Perhaps Ill go for a reconnaissance outing this morning. I know a good spot.
– Lori Iverson