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Wildlife research, analysis and inventory

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

Recent articles

CWD Multi-State Research Initiative

CWD Multi-State Research Initiative

By Todd Nordeen
November, 2019

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

Recent articles

Todd Valley wetlands: the newest migratory hotspot for migratory birds?

CWD Todd Valley wetlands: the newest migratory hotspot for migratory birds?

By Joel Jorgensen
November, 2019

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.

Uncertain future for Least Terns and Piping Plovers

Evolving mining practices means an uncertain future for Least Terns and Piping Plovers

By Joel Jorgensen
November, 2019

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.

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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

Recent articles

Nebraska Wildlife Watch

Nebraska Wildlife Watch

By Alie Mayes and Melissa Panella
November, 2019

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:

  1. To allow participants to view and recognize Nebraska’s wildlife
  2. To promote engagement of citizen science in Nebraska
  3. To gain reliable sightings of rare/at-risk species
  4. 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:

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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

Recent articles

Future Prairie Grouse Monitoring

Future Prairie Grouse Monitoring

By John Laux
November, 2019

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.

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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.)

Waterfowl Program

Program description forthcoming.

Program manager: Mark Vrtiska, 402-471-5437

Data and Biometrics Program

Program description forthcoming.

Program manager: Jeff Lusk, 402-471-1756

Furbearer and Carnivore Program

Program description forthcoming.

Program manager: Sam Wilson, 402-471-5174

Natural Heritage Program

Program description forthcoming.

Program manager: Caroline Jezierski, 402-471-5569

Publications and Reports

Program description forthcoming.

Other News

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.