The Sandhills boasts a wide range of ecosystems–spanning from marshes to dry upland vegetated dunes. Because of this variety, the wildlife that makes their home in this landscape are plentiful and diverse. Insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals all occupy the many Sandhill ecological communities.
The Nebraska Sandhills has a diverse insect population that reflects the multitude of habitats found across the landscape. Insects in this area have adapted to the sandy soils and dry climate. They provide many benefits for the other animals, plants, and humans that live there, although most people do not recognize their significance. There are four categories of Sandhill insects–pollinators, scavengers, and predators
Pollinators are invaluable to the survival of the Sandhills an include such species as wild bees, bumblebees, butterflies, moths, and wasps. The Monarch Butterfly has received considerable attention in the last few years due to its endangered status. Adults migrate through the Sandhills on their 2000 mile journey to winter habitat in Mexico.
Scavengers clean up the abundance of animal feces as well as dead animal carcasses. They are also responsible for aerating the soils–enabling a diverse population of plants to survive. Blowflies, flesh flies, dung beetles, and carrion beetles are all scavenging insects. The American burying beetle is an endangered carrion beetle that makes its home in the Sandhills. Nebraska has one of the highest populations of this insect.
Insect predators feed on the larvae or adult form of other insects, small fish, and aquatic invertebrates. They include the blood-sucking insects that cause distress in livestock and human populations. Mantids, ladybird beetles, aphid lions, wasp species, dragonflies, and ants control insect pests that feed on plants, crops, and other animals. They provide a service to farmers and ranchers throughout the Sandhills by keeping pests at a manageable level. Blood-sucking flies such as mosquitos, horse flies, and deer flies torment livestock and can cause significant economic losses to ranchers if not controlled. Plant predatory insects include species such as crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, locusts, and many species of true bugs and beetles. These insects feed on the diverse variety of plants found in the Sandhills. Some feed directly on the plant, and others suck the sap and living juices from the plant.
Insects in the Sandhills are diverse and abundant. “Insects are major connectors between different species…By consuming large quantities of plants and other plant parts on the one hand, and by being consumed in enormous amounts by vertebrates [and invertebrates] on the other hand, insects in great part determine the structural relationship between larger organisms” (An Atlas of the Sand Hills). They all, whether beneficial or a pest to the human population, make up a unique web of flora and fauna that is the Sandhills.
More than 75 species of fish live in the streams, lakes, and marshes of the Sandhills. The diversity of habitat types and relative stability of water flow, temperature, and quality ensure a robust and diverse fish population to satisfy anglers of all kinds.
Headwater streams in the Sandhills are small and stable. They flow at a near-constant rate because of the area’s vast groundwater resource. Fish species adapted to these areas depend on this consistent and constant inflow. Headwater species include minnows, trout, daces, sticklebacks, and shiners.
Medium-sized rivers and streams are very common across the Sandhills. These habitats generally show an increase in predator species and thus an increase in species diversity. Common carp, plains minnow, western silvery minnow, flathead chub, red shiner, suckermouth minnow, red shiner, and stone cat are common. Because this habitat falls between the headwater and the large-river habitats, species from each coexist in many locations.
Rivers classified as large do not exist in the Sandhills, however typical large river fish species live in the Loup and Niobrara rivers. These species include the speckled chub, silver chub, emerald shiner, river shiner, carpsucker, channel catfish, flathead catfish, walleye, and freshwater drum. These fish are more tolerant of a wide variety of environmental fluctuations than their headwater cousins.
Lake fisheries in the Sandhills can be divided further into alkaline lakes and freshwater lakes. Many Sandhill lakes are too salty to support a fish population. Fish species adapted to alkaline habitats include yellow perch, grass pickerel, northern pike, and black bullhead. Freshwater lake species include largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, black crappie, walleye, channel catfish, and northern pike. These fisheries are of particular interest to anglers across the state and beyond.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Sandhill reptiles and amphibians come together in a complex entwining of habitats, both wet and dry, and temporary and permanent. Frogs, turtles, and some of the snakes prefer wet areas near permanent marshes, ponds, lakes, and streams. Toads and salamanders prefer temporary wet areas fed by heavy spring and summer rains while lizards and some of the snakes prefer the dry areas of the upland vegetated dunes.
The tiger salamander is the only species of salamander found in the sandhills. These unique creatures can many times be located far away from water in rodent burrows; however, water is necessary for the larval stage of the species. Similarly, toads can live in drier areas, but also use temporary ponds for breeding. The Great plains toad and the plains spadefoot toad are grassland species and emerge after heavy thunderstorms in the spring and summer. The rocky mountain toad prefers the more permanent water habitats located in gardens, under and around buildings, and along rivers and streams. Frog species live along rivers, streams, marshes, and lakes across the region. Species include the cricket frog, chorus frog, bullfrog, and northern leopard frog.
Six species of turtles can exist throughout the Sandhills in or near-permanent marshes, lakes, ponds, and streams. The spiny softshell turtle is rare but may be seen in the eastern Sandhills, while the snapping turtle, painted turtle, and ornate box turtle are present throughout the entire Sandhills. The ornate box turtle is the most commonly seen turtle and can be found crossing roads in the spring and early summer. The yellow mud turtle makes its life in the non-alkaline ponds and lakes. The Blandings turtle is considered endangered throughout most of its range west of the Great Lakes, and Canada, but in the Sandhills, the species is relatively abundant (although still protected). More than 100,000 turtles live in the area-10 times more turtles living here than there is anywhere else combined (Omaha World-Herald, 2017).
Dry upland Sandhill ecosystems provide habitat for lizards and snakes. The lesser earless and the northern prairie lizard prefer areas with more bare ground, while the six-lined racerunner prefers areas with dense vegetation. The many-line skink is common in the Sandhills but rarely seen. Prairie rattlesnakes, western hognose snakes, and bull snakes are found in the drier areas of the sandhills, each occupying a slightly different habitat. The rattlesnake likes rocky outcrops and prairie dog towns, the hognose snake prefers sparsely vegetated grasslands, while the bull snake prefers areas with dense vegetation. The green racer, milk snake, plains gartersnake, common water snake, and red-sided gartersnake choose to live in wetter habitats along rivers and marshes.
The Sandhills serve as a migratory highway for many bird species. Among these are the common loon, grebes, American White Pelican, cormorant, bitterns, herons, egrets, herons, swans, geese, ducks, bald eagles, hawks, a wide variety of shorebirds, cranes, hummingbirds, flycatchers, wrens, kinglets, thrushes, warblers, sparrows, and finches. Wintering birds species include rough-legged hawk, gyrfalcon, snowy owl, northern shrike, tree sparrow, dark-eyed junco, snow bunting, common redpoll, and evening gross beak. Birds that live in the sandhills all year long include several species of raptors, wild turkey, northern bobwhite, mourning dove, swallows, and numerous songbirds. Grassland birds that make the Sandhills their home include raptors, greater prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, sandpipers, burrowing and short-eared owls, horned lark, dickcissel, sparrows, longspurs, bobolinks, and meadowlarks.
The vast number of birds that can live in the Sandhills at any one time is due to the vegetation from peripheral areas that extends into the area. These vegetation biomes include the western conifer forest, the eastern deciduous forest, the northern arboreal forest, the short grass prairie, and the tallgrass prairie. The topography of the Sandhills also plays a role. The dry upland vegetative dunes will support different bird species than the lower, wetland habitat found around the abundant water sources. This complex mosaic of various ecological sites provides birds with breeding, nesting, and brooding habitat all within the confines of the Sandhills.
Sandhills’ bird species that are of particular concern for conservation by the Sandhills Task Force and its partners include black-billed cuckoo, black-billed magpie, black tern, burrowing owl, Ferruginous hawk, loggerhead shrike, long-billed curlew, piping plover, short-eared owl, Sprague’s pipit, whooping crane, Bell’s vireo, trumpeter swan, the greater prairie chicken, and many migratory grassland nesting birds. These birds are the most at-risk species found in the Sandhills as defined by the Natural Legacy Project.
The Sandhills present a wide variety of habitats for mammal species. From the wet interdunal spaces to the dry dune tops to the damp river banks, each habitat provides a home to over fifty mammal species. Rodents, carnivores, and hooved animals disperse themselves across the landscape. While rodent species live in a single habitat type, carnivores and hooved animals are widespread.
Rodent species can be found in all environments across the Sandhills but will tend to live in a single habitat type throughout their life cycle. The dry upland hills will boast such species as the plains pocket mouse, pocket gopher, prairie vole, deer mouse, and rabbits and hares. The wetter areas are habitats for muskrats, jumping mice, masked shrews, and meadow voles. Porcupines, beavers, ground squirrels, and wood rats live in river corridor habitat. Kangaroo rats are unique in that they prefer blowout areas, while the prairie dog occurs on in areas with shorter grasses.
Carnivores are widespread mammals–inhabiting environments all across the region. Coyotes, fox, and skunks distribute themselves throughout the sandhills in most habitat types. Raccoons tend to be widespread but prefer trees or spaces near prairie dog towns. Badgers dens commonly occur on hillsides in the dryer areas of the sandhills. Mink and otters are abundant near lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers. The rarely seen bobcat prefers the wooded areas along streams or in the hand-planted forests.
Hooved mammals such as elk, bison, and mountain sheep were once abundant across the Sandhills, but now only wild populations of elk are present in small numbers. The pronghorn antelope can be seen grazing in dry upland pastures in the Western Sandhills. Mule and white-tailed deer are the most common hooved mammals and can be seen all across the region in all habitat types.
The Sandhills provides habitat for six species of bats. The Eastern red bat, big brown bat, hoary bat, and silver-haired bat can live in wooded areas across the sandhills. The Western small-footed bat and Northern long-eared bat are found only along the Niobrara river corridor.
Mammal species of most significant concern for conservation by the Sandhills Task Force and its partners include the swift fox, river otter, and Northern Long-eared bat. These species are determined to be the most threatened and endangered. More information on their conservation status is available from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.