The mission of the research, analysis, and inventory section of the Game and Parks Commission is to provide sound, scientific information that influences the management, preservation and understanding and of flora and fauna in Nebraska. To accomplish that, we employ a diverse staff with expertise in a wide variety of disciplines. From restoring Bighorn sheep the Pine Ridge, to recovering the critically endangered Salt Creek Tiger Beetle in Lincoln, our goal is to build upon current understanding of Nebraska species and their habits to aid in their conservation and management. With this page, we hope to provide updated information to keep the agency and public informed on what we are doing across the state.
Descriptions of the section programs, along with recent research articles and program manager contact information, follows.
Big Game Disease and Research Program
The Big Game Program covers the research, management, recreational use, and conservation of traditional big game animals in Nebraska, including whitetail deer, mule deer, and pronghorn (antelope). Elk and bighorn sheep only recently have become numerous enough in western Nebraska to warrant management considerations. The wandering nature of bear and moose create the possibility of rare occurrence in the state.
Program manager: Todd Nordeen, 308-763-2940
CWD Multi-State Research Initiative
By Todd Nordeen
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal neurologic disease affecting members of the deer family caused by an infectious protein known as a prion. It was first identified in Colorado in the 1960s, with CWD now emerging in multiple locations across North America and abroad. In the United States and Canada, CWD has been identified in wild cervids in 24 states, 3 Canadian provinces. A growing amount of evidence suggests that CWD represents a significant threat to the health and viability of native cervid populations in North America and elsewhere. Researchers now believe CWD can negatively impact deer and elk populations and suggest more widespread impacts seem likely if effective control strategies cannot be identified.
There is an urgent need to identify practical management strategies for chronic wasting disease (CWD) that can minimize impacts on cervid populations nationwide. Recently, Nebraska joined Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Alberta in a multi-state research project to explore harvest strategies that may affect the spread of CWD.
This consortium proposed to assemble and synthesize available, long-term data on herd management and CWD trends from cooperating Western jurisdictions to develop guidance on harvest-based control strategies. A postdoctoral researcher/analyst will analyze data to identify harvest practices showing evidence of reducing, limiting, or increasing CWD occurrence. In Nebraska, the Pine Ridge and Plains deer management units and their long history of CWD prevalence and Mule deer harvest are the focal units with this project.
Results of this research are expected in 2020 with the possibility of an extension of the project. This research will also expand the capacity of states/provinces to develop directed management for CWD. Although focused on Western systems, results could benefit Midwestern and Eastern states/provinces directly or as a model for similar regional capacity-building.
Nongame Bird Program
The Nongame Bird Program carries out research projects and monitoring programs focused on nongame birds. A core responsibility of the Nongame Bird Program is to identify, develop and implement research and monitoring projects, with the broad goal of improving current understanding with respect to the status, temporal occurrence and spatial distribution of nongame birds in Nebraska.
Program manager: Joel Jorgensen, 402-471-5440
CWD Todd Valley wetlands: the newest migratory hotspot for migratory birds?
By Joel Jorgensen
The Rainwater Basin and Sandhills are relatively well-known landscapes that contain complexes of wetlands that famously attract large numbers of migrating waterbirds. However, other wetland complexes sprinkled across the state often go unnoticed. Frankly, you could possibly find yourself in the middle of one of these landscapes and not even know it. One such landscape is the Todd Valley, an abandoned ancient river valley in Saunders County composed of sand and gravel soils with a surface covered by loess (fine dirt particles). If you have ever traveled to the towns of Colon or Mead, you have traversed the Todd Valley.
Within the Todd Valley are numerous, albeit small, embedded playa wetlands. Nearly all of these wetlands in this relatively flat landscape have been altered or destroyed. Nonetheless, the wetlands do pond water when moisture is abundant, and wetlands of any size can attract birds. Waterbird use of Todd Valley wetlands had never been formally studied, but following exceptional run-off from melting snow and rain in March 2019, the Nongame Bird Program concluded it was an excellent opportunity to evaluate migratory bird use in this region’s wetlands. A research design was formulated and nine surveys were conducted from late March through mid-May.
The project recorded 53 wetland bird species and 10,514 individual birds. More shorebird species (22) were recorded than waterfowl (20) and other waterbird species (11), but the majority (8,126) of birds observed were waterfowl followed by shorebirds (2,086) and other waterbirds (276). The project recorded eight species (Tundra Swan, Common Goldeneye, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Virginia Rail, Sora and Piping Plover) that had not been previously reported from Todd Valley wetlands.
Todd Valley wetlands have ponded water more frequently during recent wet years. If the changing climate trends toward wetter years, it is plausible that these wetlands may regularly provide habitat for migratory birds. While the number of birds using this region will pale in comparison to the Rainwater Basin or central Platte, landscapes such as the Todd Valley still support migratory bird populations.
Evolving mining practices means an uncertain future for Least Terns and Piping Plovers
By Joel Jorgensen
Piping Plovers and Least Terns have nested and raised young at sand and gravel mines along the Platte River ever since dredges began churning out aggregate that is essential to modern society. Piping Plovers are state and federally listed as threatened and Least Terns are state and federally listed as endangered. The birds nest on expanses of bare or sparsely vegetated sand and gravel adjacent to water. The presence of listed species on what are essentially industrial sites creates situations rife for conflict. Fortunately, the Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership (TPCP) has successfully protected and managed these birds at these areas for two decades.
Sand and gravel mines, as well as their derivative the lakeshore housing development, were traditionally considered sub-standard habitat and even biological sinks. However, research by the TPCP and Nongame Bird Program (NBP) of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission using color-banded Piping Plovers showed that these off-river habitats actually contribute to local and regional populations and even augment numbers on the Missouri River. The problem, though, is that these are artificial habitats reliant on humans to not only create, but also maintain, because mechanical disturbance is necessary to keep sandy areas un-vegetated.
Mining practices are evolving because companies must always find ways to be more efficient in order to stay profitable. A question that arises, then, is how changing mining practices will affect nesting terns and plovers. A recent research project by the NBP and TPCP examined that very question. The study showed that modern mines provide less habitat, as the footprint of unused waste sand suitable for nesting is reduced. As these newer mines continue to replace older ones, recent trends suggest that there will be no traditional mine sites along the lower Platte River by 2032. This will reduce tern and plover habitat in the region and almost certainly result in fewer birds, which will have implications not only locally, but regionally as well. More information can be found at the link below.
Wildlife Diversity Program
The Wildlife Diversity Program is devoted to biodiversity conservation, focusing on declining species with an emphasis on nongame species. The Diversity Program is responsible for implementation of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project (State Wildlife Action Plan).
Program manager: Melissa Panella, 402-471-5444
Nebraska Wildlife Watch
By Alie Mayes and Melissa Panella
Nebraska Wildlife Watch is a web-based citizen science project where participants can review photos and tag pictures of the species they see in the camera trap images. We installed camera traps for this project at two Nebraska Natural Legacy Demonstration Sites located at Ponca and Niobrara state parks. Natural Legacy Demonstration Sites are locations that showcase habitat conservation opportunities in the state. The Nebraska Wildlife Watch citizen science project is an engaging way to monitor and learn more about wildlife using the sites. We have four main goals:
- To allow participants to view and recognize Nebraska’s wildlife
- To promote engagement of citizen science in Nebraska
- To gain reliable sightings of rare/at-risk species
- To gain information that may help inform state habitat management decisions
There are currently three cameras on the Natural Legacy Demonstration Sites. Biologists and staff on-site check the cameras and upload images to the project approximately once per month. The parameters of this online project require each image-set (up to six frames taken within a 30-second period) to be reviewed and tagged by six different participants. This helps to increase the level of confidence in the identification. Based on the ratio of identifications, in a 24-day period (August 24–September 16, 2019), participants completed an average of 694 classifications per day. Currently, revisions are underway to create project parameters that retire images classified as “nothing there” or “deer” 4/6 times with 100% consensus. This will increase the speed that the data can be processed. It will also help participants to see less repetitive images, so that a greater variety of images will keep them engaged in the project. Multiple projects with different parameters can be set up under Nebraska Wildlife Watch. If you have a project you think could be a good fit for Nebraska Wildlife Watch, please contact the Watchable Wildlife Biologist Alie Mayes. Access Nebraska Wildlife Watch at the link below:
Upland Game Program
The Upland Game Program works to improve habitat and increase public hunting opportunities for upland game species in Nebraska, monitors upland game populations, and conducts applied research fostering a greater understanding of factors affecting upland game species and their ecological and recreational values.
Program manager: John Laux, 308-928-2541
Future Prairie Grouse Monitoring
By John Laux
Starting in spring 2020, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will initiate a new monitoring effort to learn more about Nebraska’s greater prairie-chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations and how best to conserve them. Survey methodology will closely mirror that used recently in South Dakota – a preliminary report can found online at the link below.
Throughout Nebraska’s prairie grouse range, randomly-selected square-mile sections will be surveyed during the peak breeding season. Due to the remoteness of grasslands occupied by prairie grouse in Nebraska (e.g., Sandhills), a combination of ground-based and aerial (helicopter) surveys will likely be used. Sampling units (square-mile sections) will be stratified by eco-region (mixed-grass prairie, tall grass prairie, short-grass prairie, and Sandhills), percent grassland (%), and percent woody cover (%) to assess the specific factors driving prairie grouse distributions and densities across different regions of the state.
NGPC is currently working with the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to finalize the survey protocol and secure necessary funding. Data collection and associated spatial modeling efforts are expected to occur over the next several years. Ideally, this monitoring effort will be repeated in future years to assess population trends and changes in distribution that occur over time in our ever-changing landscape. The following is a list of expected deliverables that will result from this collaborative monitoring effort:
- Statewide and regional population estimates for greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse
- Statewide distribution and density maps
- Increased understanding of the relationship between landscape structure and prairie grouse populations, including habitat selection and thresholds that influence occurrence and density (e.g., % grass, % woody cover, % development, etc.)
- Decision Support Tools (DSTs) will be developed to guide future conservation delivery efforts
Expected Decision Support Tools will include:
- Targeted grassland restoration/management efforts within specific landscapes (e.g., CRP or EQIP enrollment, WLFW projects, etc.)
- Assessment of private lands for future acquisitions or easements
- Identification of areas to prioritize as avoidance zones from energy development (e.g., wind, gas, oil, etc.)
- Future scenario planning to predict the impacts of future environmental and land-use changes on prairie grouse populations (e.g., continued cropland conversion or woody encroachment, energy development, etc.)
The Waterfowl Program covers the management, conservation, research, and monitoring of waterfowl and their habitats in Nebraska, Central Flyway, and at national and international levels to provide for hunting and other recreational opportunities. The program also includes engagement and understanding of waterfowl hunter and other constituent’s issues, preferences, participation, and cooperation for more effective waterfowl management and conservation.
Program manager: Mark Vrtiska, 402-471-5437
By Mark Vrtiska, Ph.D.
The Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) was established in 1999 to reduce the mid-continent populations of lesser snow and Ross’s geese. Recent research has indicated that the LGCO has been ineffective at reducing these populations. One factor that may reduce the effectiveness of the LGCO is the harvest of individuals that are in relatively poorer condition, and thus, do not affect population levels.
This harvest condition bias hypothesis was evaluated for lesser snow and Ross’s geese during the LGCO. Body condition was determined from data from lesser snow and Ross’s geese collected during the LGCO in 2015 and 2016 during spring migration in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In each state, birds were collected from LGCO participants using traditional decoy techniques as well as those collected from the general population using jump-shooting.
Total body lipid content in both lesser snow and Ross’s geese varied with age, region of harvest, and harvest type. On average, adult lesser snow and Ross’s geese harvested over decoys had 60 g and 41 g, respectively, fewer lipids than conspecifics collected from the general population. Lower lipid reserves in decoy shot geese were observed in all four states sampled despite general gains in lipid reserves as migration chronology progressed.
The data support that the harvest condition bias extends to lesser snow and Ross’s geese harvested during the LGCO. In the case of overabundant lesser snow and Ross’ geese, the disproportionate harvest of poorer conditioned individuals in decoy hunting situations may serve as an additional buffer against any realized effects of harvest in addition to extremely low harvest rates.
By Mark Vrtiska, Ph.D.
Current waterfowl populations provide liberal hunting opportunities but waterfowl hunter numbers have declined. The relationship between breeding duck populations (duck bpop) and waterfowl hunter numbers, as indicated by Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Conservation Stamp (duck stamp) sales, has changed and which has impacts to waterfowl habitat conservation. The relation between duck bpop and duck stamp sales changed between 1995-1994 and 1995-2008, with duck bpops and duck stamp sales being highly correlated from 1955-94, but this relationship weakened during 1995-2008. If the 1955-94 relationship between total duck bpop and duck stamp sales was applied to the period from 1995-2008, approximately 600,000/year additional duck stamps should have been sold, equaling approximately $126 million in gross revenue. Current relationships of duck bpops and duck stamp sales suggest future estimates of waterfowl hunters will decrease below 1 million as duck bpops decrease below 31 million. Using land protection rates from North and South Dakota, funding to conserve a potential 105,000-200,000 additional acres was not available during 1995-2008 and expected losses of duck stamp revenues could result in an additional 200,000 acres not protected if duck bpops decline. Development and implementation of programs and policies that at least maintain or increase participation in waterfowl hunting will ameliorate habitat loss and waning of waterfowl hunting traditions.
Data and Biometrics Program
The Data and Biometry Program provides analytical and data management support to RAI program areas and the Wildlife Division. The Program focuses on human dimensions of wildlife management (HD) as well as ecological research and monitoring. The program strives to make wildlife data resources (e.g., databases, spreadsheets, protocol documentation, summary information and reports) within the division accessible, useable, and secure—now and for the future. Tasks include HD survey design, coordination, and implementation; data compilation/entry; database design and maintenance; and research design, analysis, and summarization.
Program manager: Jeff Lusk, 402-471-1756
By Jeff Lusk
The thrice annual Rural Mail Carrier Surveys are among the longest running and most spatially wide-ranging surveys of wildlife conducted by the Game & Parks Commission. Currently, the Rural Mail Carrier Surveys (RMCSs) provide information on population status of pheasants, quail, grouse, wild turkey, cottontails, jackrabbits and deer. For some of these species, the RMCSs are the only statewide population assessment currently undertaken by the Commission.
Initiated in the 1940s, the RMCSs have expanded and changed over the years, but recently, changes in people’s mailing habits have resulted in a number of post-office closures across the state. The result has been a decreasing trend in carriers participating each year. However, if existing post offices take on rural routes from those that have closed, the total coverage of the RMCSs might be unaffected by the closures.
I looked at participation by rural carriers through time, in terms of the number of carriers and the number of miles traveled each survey to investigate this questions. Here, I provide results from the July RMCS, but results from the April and October surveys were very similar. Further, although the survey goes back to the 1940s, data in electronic format only goes back to 1979, so analyses are based on the period 1979 through 2018.
Overall trends for the number of carriers participating and the number of miles traveled were decreasing. These decreasing trends might not be an issue if the rate of change for miles traveled was smaller than that for the number of carriers. So that these two variables could be compared directly, they were standardized by dividing each value by its respective mean and dividing it by the standard deviation. These standardized rates of change were nearly identical for carriers and miles, indicating that rural routes lost when a post office closes are truly lost and not assumed by other post offices or carriers. The loss in carriers, therefore, represents a true loss in coverage across the state.
What might this mean for the long-term sustainability of the RMCSs? In order to answer this, I projected participation over the next 20 years (until 2040) to see, assuming current trends continue, what the state of participation in the RMCSs might be. By 2040, a quadratic model of carrier participation predicts that carrier participation will fall below 100 carriers (currently ~400 carriers participate) and miles traveled by participating carriers will fall to just above 50,000 (currently carriers travel a total of ~180,000 miles).
Again, these projections assume that routes and carriers will be lost at the same rate as they are being lost now, and should be considered worst-case. However, given the importance of the RMCSs to tracking population trends, either alternative surveys must be devised or efforts to stem the loss of carrier participants must be undertaken. Further, at what point estimates become unreliable indicators of species abundance as participation and coverage decline should be explored.
Furbearer and Carnivore Program
The Furbearer and Carnivore Program is responsible for management of furbearers, other carnivores including coyotes and mountain lions, feral pigs, and nongame mammals – including those listed as threatened or endangered (river otters, southern flying squirrels, and swift fox). The primary furbearering species are abundant and widespread; therefore little management is necessary beyond harvest and disease monitoring, depredation response, and outreach to current and potential fur harvesters. Regulatory changes, research, and survey needs are important components of this program.
Program manager: Sam Wilson, 402-471-5174
By Sam Wilson
River otters are playful pinnacle predators in Nebraska’s aquatic ecosystems. They are powerful, quick, and adaptable to a variety of habitats and food resources. Despite the hardiness of this species, they could not overcome unregulated harvest and habitat changes that occurred during early settlement. Unfortunately for river otters, and the people of the time, they were extirpated from most Midwestern states by the early 1900s.
Biologists in the 1970s and 1980s made great efforts to return this species to suitable habitats across the country. More than 4,000 river otters were translocated during one of the largest scale and most successful carnivore restoration programs in U.S. history. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission worked with game agencies and trappers in five states and two Canadian Provinces to acquire otters to reintroduce. They also spent considerable time holding public meetings, assessing suitable habitat for release sites, and preparing equipment to make sure the releases were successful. They released 159 river otters at seven sites in Nebraska during 1986-1991. 20-30 river otters were released at each site in order to provide enough animals for otters to find a mate.
Some river otters did not stay where they were released, including a male that traveled 1,138km from the South Loup River in Custer County, NE to the Missouri River near Hermann, MO. Most of the river otters likely did stay in Nebraska, as evidenced by their persistence and expansion from those reintroduction sites over the last 30 years.
Commission biologists used a number of techniques to determine the distribution and status of otters in Nebraska after their release. Otter presence (roadkill, photos, incidentally trapped animals, etc.) has been documented and mapped for decades. Winter bridge surveys were conducted where biologists looked for the unique run-and-slide tracks of otters on snow covered ice. Three graduate projects were completed with help from UNL, the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, The Nature Conservancy, The Crane Trust, The Nebraska Fur Harvesters, private landowners, and other partners.
All of these efforts to assess survival, expansion, habitat needs, and status of river otters in Nebraska paid off. In 2017 Commission wildlife staff reviewed the status of threatened and endangered species in Nebraska. After this review, staff proposed that there was solid evidence that river otters have recovered, and their removal from the states list of threatened species was warranted. Evidence for delisting was reviewed by outside experts. Then two years of public meetings finally led to the Commission voting to delist otters during January 2020. More than 30 years of effort had finally paid off with a secure future for this charismatic native species.
Otters recovered in Nebraska and most of the U.S. thanks to large areas of suitable habitat remaining, the hardiness and adaptability of the species themselves, and decades of hard work by biologists and partners. Many species cannot be recovered in a similar manner, but we should applaud efforts like otter restoration that can bring back native species and allow them to thrive. This is truly one of the great conservation success stories in Nebraska.
Natural Heritage Program
The Nebraska Natural Heritage Program (NENHP) was initiated in Nebraska in 1987 for the purpose of developing, managing, and distributing scientific information critical to the conservation of Nebraska’s biological diversity. The program furthermore plays key roles in conservation planning and conservation implementation projects around the state. The NENHP is part of a network across the United States, Canada, and portions of Latin America that uses shared methods, standards, and technology to help advance shared goals.
Program manager: Caroline Jezierski, 402-471-5569
By Rachel Simpson
Nebraska’s dedicated biologists continue to contribute to the inventory of information on the state’s biodiversity. Technological advances make the process of getting this information to those who need it more efficient. One example is Nebraska’s online system that delivers information about the distribution of species at risk of extinction or extirpation through an easy-to-use online map available to the public.
The map also includes related natural resource information, such as known high-quality natural communities, protected areas, and Biologically Unique Landscapes. Registered users can provide a boundary for an area of interest and receive a custom report with maps and tables. There are also several layers accessible to NGPC staff needing more detailed information for their work.
The system’s name, the Nebraska Conservation and Environmental Review Tool (CERT), reflects its two main audiences. First, the system helps those who are actively working to conserve or improve habitat of our native species. Knowledge about what at-risk species could occur in a project area is fundamental to conservation project planning.
The other users are those who have projects that require an environmental review. Under Nebraska law, any project that is conducted, funded, or authorized by a state agency must be reviewed by NGPC to determine if it will adversely impact threatened or endangered species. The process for less complex projects can be completed in as little as a few minutes.
The system was developed by NGPC in partnership with NatureServe. Financial support for development came from NGPC, USFS, NRCS, and USFWS.
Learn more at cert.outdoornebraska.gov.
Map view of the CERT, showing selected insect ranges, Biologically Unique Landscapes, and large intact blocks of habitat.
Publications and Reports
Wind Turbines Don’t Out-Boom Prairie-Chicken Lek Potential
Recently, researchers from UNL were featured in a Wildlife Society article discussing some of their findings from a recent prairie grouse and wind turbine study in the Sandhills of Nebraska. This project was done in cooperation with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, who provided the funding for this project. This project helped the state shed light on wind turbine impacts to prairie grouse during the breeding season.