13 January 2012

Fort Niobrara Refuge Celebrates 100th Anniversary

An edict signed January 11, 1912 by President William Howard Taft created the "Niobrara Reservation," from federal property that had been Fort Niobrara. The area was "... set apart for the use of the Department of Agriculture as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds," according to the executive order 1461.

The place had been Fort Niobrara with its frontier origins basically starting with its construction in 1880. The military reservation of circa 60,000 acres was officially abandoned on July 31, 1906, but then repurposed to become one of the first significant federal bird refuges established in the United States. The Niobrara Reservation is considered the 27th National Wildlife Refuge.

During May, 1912 Fred M. Dille collected some bird specimens which were a fledgling start for the bird history associated with the refuge lands. The skins are now part of the collection at the University of Nebraska State Museum. The species taken were the: Spotted Towhee, Lark Sparrow, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Orchard Oriole, Horned Lark and Harris's Sparrow.

Dille was the preserve manager for several years.

In subsequent years, the tract was best known as the Niobrara Game Preserve, with additional significant bird history developed in 1934 by W.E. Beed. It then eventually became part of the national wildlife refuge system, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The place attracted the attention of William Youngworth of Sioux City - based upon an invitation - and he wrote an article about birds of the Quicourt Valley. The term Quicourt was derived from a French term for rapid river.

Youngworth wrote about his 1947 sojourn, the fourth to the refuge area:

"Our camp on the collecting trip was a small one room tin clad cabin at in the woods beside a tumbling waterfall just east of the Berry Bridge. This delightful spot was about eleven miles east of Valentine. My waking hours were spent in collecting, as Mr. Dille was incapacitated and spent most of his time making up specimens and writing notes on the new species. About my first coup was to collect a Cardinal, which Dille had never seen in that region. The Cardinal was not common, but I saw several later on. Mr. Dille was at this time interested in passerine birds, so the bulk of my collecting was in this group."

This legacy of birds would continue, as there have been uncountable birders to the refuge through the years, each enjoying the wildbird habitats along the Niobrara River in their distinctive manner.

Modern Legacy

On the day of its anniversary, current and retired staff from the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service employees and representatives of the Sandhills Prairie Refuge Association (a "friends" group) gathered to consider appropriate centennial activities, said Steve Hicks, manager of the Fort Niobrara/Valentine refuge complex.

"We would like to get the public involved," Hicks said, noting that refuge tours to closely observe bison, educational programs highlighting notable natural features, the quarter-century of military history and other options are being considered. Events would occur when the weather is more conducive to visitors.

NPS staff from the office of the Niobrara National Scenic River in nearby Valentine would be a partner in the programs.

The hundred year anniversary is very significant for Fort Niobrara, Hicks said. The current FWS staff "have a lot of responsibility and a legacy to care for in a manner that would be right for the refuge."

"We have to conserve habitats for the species present, and maintain the quality of places used by the flora and fauna," Hicks said.

Current challenges include maintaining habitat conditions that promote species diversity, limiting the encroachment of invasive cedar trees and making certain that in future decades, efforts done now will continue the features of a "special place" for plants and animals, and the visitors which appreciate them.

A proclamation recognizing this anniversary was issued by the governor of Nebraska.