Nebraska Conservation Summary

While most people think of corn when they hear “Nebraska,” fundamentally, Nebraska is a prairie state. Early explorers and settlers were met by a sea of grass that extended from one end of the state to the other, spanning the range from tallgrass and mixedgrass prairies to shortgrass prairie.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitat

Today, most of the tallgrass prairie has been converted to agricultural uses that depend on the rich soils built by the prairie ecosystem over millennia. Still, much prairie remains elsewhere in the state. The Sandhills ecosystem in north-central Nebraska may be the largest remaining intact grassland in North America. This 19,000 square-mile area, the largest grass-stabilized dune system in the western hemisphere, is dotted by numerous wetlands and remains largely in its natural state. The Rainwater Basins and Central Platte River ecosystems in south-central Nebraska are internationally important migratory stopover sites. Referred to as the “pinch in the hourglass” of the central flyway, this area provides a refueling and resting site each spring for more than 10 million waterfowl and 300,000 shorebirds, including more than 80 percent of the global population of sandhill cranes. The deeply incised Niobrara Valley in north-central Nebraska is a biologically rich crossroads, the only place where western coniferous forest is juxtaposed with eastern deciduous forest. The south wall of the valley also includes cool, spring-fed canyons that harbor glacial relict woodlands dominated by paper birch and quaking aspen.

The diversity of plants and animals found in Nebraska is due in large part to the climatic gradient that the state spans, from the humid east, with its fringe of deciduous forest, to the dry west. The state harbors a wide array of grassland species that occupy a variety of community types, from wet meadows and mesic tallgrass prairie to xeric dune and shortgrass prairies. In addition, numerous wetland complexes and prairie rivers provide habitat for a variety of aquatic species. The Sandhills ecosystem harbors several imperiled species including the blowout Penstemon, a federally listed plant that is nearly endemic to the state and grows only in open sand “blowouts” found at the top of some dunes. The Sandhills provide habitat for the American burying beetle, a federally endangered species that once ranged throughout the central and eastern U.S. but is now found in only four states. The intact grasslands of the Sandhills are also a stronghold for the Blanding’s turtle, which is declining throughout much of its range. The central Platte River area is critical habitat for whooping cranes, which spend several weeks there each spring gaining reserves needed for migration to their breeding grounds in Canada. In addition, a small cluster of imperiled saline wetlands in the eastern portion of the state provide the only know home for the federally endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle and the only location in the state for the rare saltwort plant.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

Nebraska has been fortunate to have a number of effective conservation partnerships. A Partnership Team representing 20 conservation agencies and organizations and agricultural groups was formed to help direct the development of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project (our State Wildlife Action Plan). The scientific methodology and data supporting the Project was developed by the Nebraska Natural Heritage Program. The Partnership Team remains together to help guide implementation of the Natural Legacy plan, which is moving forward rapidly with projects in priority landscapes identified in the plan.

A local example of cooperative conservation can be found along the central Platte River where the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Nebraska and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to identify, protect and manage important migratory and nesting habitat. The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture and the Sandhills Task Force are also excellent examples of dedicated agencies, organizations and landowners working together to effect conservation in important landscapes. Some notable land conservation successes include protection of diverse portions of the Sandhills by the Crescent Lake and Valentine National Wildlife Refuges, where numerous lakes and wetlands are interspersed among the vegetated dunes. Significant portions of the biologically unique Niobrara Valley have been preserved by The Nature Conservancy’s large Niobrara Valley Preserve and the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.

Threats

Nebraska is a private-lands state with less than 3 percent of the state in public or conservation ownership. While many significant areas still need protection, much can also be done to encourage landowners to be good stewards of the lands they manage. As in many other states, the primary threats to biodiversity include habitat loss and degradation, alteration of important ecological processes and the invasion of exotic species. Ninety-eight percent of Nebraska’s tallgrass prairie has been lost to agricultural and other uses. The remaining fragments, as well as portions of the mixedgrass and shortrgrass prairie regions, remain under threat of conversion to cropland due to high corn prices—fueled in part by the demand for corn-based ethanol production. Most of Nebraska’s ecosystems are disturbance-dependent, requiring frequent burning and grazing for their maintenance. Euro-American settlement has reduced the fire frequency and alterated historic grazing regimes. These changes have greatly altered the prairie ecosystems. In addition, pumping of surface and groundwater for irrigation has significantly altered the hydrology of many of our rivers and wetlands and greatly impacted species found there. Finally, several invasive exotic species including smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and cheatgrass have invaded and now dominate many native prairies, significantly reducing native plant diversity. And all of the above threats will likely be compounded by global climate change.

Nebraska’s Future

While conservation faces many challenges in Nebraska, a large number of state and federal agencies and conservation organizations have embraced the Natural Legacy plan as a blueprint for effective conservation of our natural heritage. The plan’s emphasis on voluntary, incentive-based approaches has fostered cooperation among landowners and conservation practitioners in a state where most of the biological diversity occurs on private lands. Early implementation of the plan has included starting large-scale conservation initiatives in ten of the forty priority landscapes identified in the plan.

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