Wildlife Week 2015: Wildlife on the Prairie

Greater Prairie Chicken still thrive in parts of Nebraska with large parcels of native prairie. Photo by Dave Menke, US FWS.

Greater prairie chickens still thrive in parts of Nebraska with large parcels of native prairie. Photo by Dave Menke, US FWS.

When Lewis and Clark and other explorers crossed the Great Plains more than 200 years ago, they found a sea of grass. Eastern Nebraska was covered with tallgrass prairie with grasses like big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass,  and flowers like goldenrod, purple prairie clover and Joe-pye weed.

The central part of Nebraska, with less rain than in the east, supported shorter mixed-grass prairies including plants like little bluestem, porcupine grass, purple prairie coneflower, bush morning-glory and lemon scurfpea.

The sandy soil of the Nebraska Sandhills was covered with sand-loving plants like sand bluestem, prairie sandreed, sand muhly, and sunflowers.

Western Nebraska, with even less rainfall, supported a vast shortgrass prairie. Buffalo grass, June grass, and blue grama were interspersed with prairie phlox, soapweed (yucca) and cactus.

Nebraska’s prairies supported a vast collection of wildlife. Massive herds of bison once roamed the Great Plains. Antelope, elk, and deer were common in different parts of Nebraska. Bears, mountain lions, and prairie wolves patrolled Nebraska.

Prairie chickens, sharptail grouse, and wild turkey shared space with a big variety of other local and migratory birds. Prairie dogs dug burrows in much of the state, providing habitat for many other species like burrowing owls and rattle snakes.

Today, 98% of the tallgrass prairie that once covered eastern Nebraska is gone, converted into cropland or urban areas. State-wide, about half of the state remains in pasture or range. The Sandhills prairie region, covering about one-quarter of Nebraska, remains mostly intact and is one of the largest intact grassland areas in North America.

By 1900, over-hunting and habitat loss had all but eliminated many of the largest wildlife in Nebraska, including bison, deer, elk, antelope, wild turkey, mountain lion, wolf and bear.

Careful regulation of hunting seasons and habitat restoration over the last century has helped restore the deer, antelope, and wild turkey populations. Pronghorn and elk have made a slower recovery but are now more abundant.

Bison still road the prairie at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Duane Hovorka.

Bison still road the prairie at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Duane Hovorka.

The loss of grassland continues, and that continues to impact wildlife that depend upon prairie. Many grassland bird species are in decline. Decades of poisoning has reduced the number of prairie dogs in Nebraska today by about 95%. The monarch butterfly, which migrates through Nebraska, has seen a sharp decline in population in recent years.

Wildlife Week Nebraska 2015 celebrates Nebraska’s prairie heritage, and the many wildlife that depend on native prairie for their survival.