Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Niobrara National Scenic River at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
The Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is a 19,131-acre property located about five miles east of Valentine along the Niobrara River. The Niobrara River in this area is a designated National Scenic River while about 4,635 acres of Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is designated as the Fort Niobrara Wilderness. The wilderness area is on the north side of the Niobrara River and many of the bison on the property spend their winters in the wooded valleys and prairies of the wilderness, then cross to the south side of the river for the summer.
Fort Niobrara was established in 1879, at the end of the Indian Wars in the northern Great Plains. The Fort was decommissioned in 1906 but effort was already underway to turn the property into a wildlife refuge of some sort. In 1912, Fort Niobrara was established as a national wildlife refuge under the jurisdiction of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, to be a "preserve and breeding ground for native birds." That mission was expanded later that same year to include efforts to preserve the dwindling Rocky Mountain elk and American bison herds.
Fort Niobrara is located at the point of convergence of six different major plant communities. Because of this, the property also supports a rich diversity of wildlife. Fossils from creatures like the giant bison, long-jawed mastodon and three-toed sloth have been found on the grounds. The fossilized remains of more than 20 extinct species of mammals have been found at Fort Niobrara, ranging in age from 13 million years to 12,000 years (into the last Ice Age).
Today, more than 230 species of migratory and native birds visit Fort Niobrara NWR every year. The bison herd presently numbers about 350 individuals, while the elk herd counts about 100 individuals. But the last wildlife inventory actually counted 48 other species of mammals, 24 amphibian and reptile species and several species of native fish. The bison and elk can present a serious problem for hikers but there is a 3.5-mile wildlife drive across the refuge that is open all year.
For most of the year, the Visitor Center is open from 8 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday, except for Federal holidays. In the summer, those hours run seven days a week, except for Federal holidays. The property itself is open to the public from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. There is no entrance fee to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge but floaters using kayaks, canoes and tubes need to pay a $2 water access fee per watercraft.
The main entrance to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge is located on US Highway 12 about five miles east of Valentine. The entrance is well-signed and once you make that turn, it's about 1.5 miles to the Visitor Center.
Bison drinking in the Niobrara River at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Photo of bison near river courtesy of Phyllis Cooper, US Fish & Wildlife Service