More than 90 mammals are found in Nebraska, but many are small and seldom seen. Early morning or late evening is often the best times to watch for mammals.
Before the 1900s, Audubon bighorn sheep inhabited parts of western Nebraska including the Wildcat Hills, the Pine Ridge, the North Platte River from the Wyoming state line to eastern Lincoln County and the Niobrara River. It is thought that the Audubon bighorn became extinct in the early 1900s, with its last stronghold being the South Dakota badlands.
Since 1981, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has been reintroducing bighorn sheep. You can now find them in the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills in the Panhandle. Specific places to look are Cedar Canyon WMA, Montz Point Ranch (Platte River Basin Environments), Fort Robinson State Park and WMA, Bighorn WMA, Ponderosa WMA, Peterson WMA and the Pine Ridge National Recreation Area (pastures 16 – 18).
The elk is Nebraska’s largest big game species and was once found throughout the state. They found their way back into the state in the late 1960s, likely wandering in from Wyoming, became established in the Pine Ridge, and have been expanding their numbers there and elsewhere ever since.
Today there are an estimated 2,500 elk in the Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills, Loess Canyons and along the North Platte River in the western third of Nebraska. Elk can be difficult to find, but are easiest to spot in the early morning or evening hours.
Black-tailed prairie dogs live in colonies or “towns” that range in size from as small as one acre to several thousand acres. In many ways, a prairie dog town can be considered a biological oasis. Many wildlife species associate with prairie dog towns, which provide a source of food for some species and habitat for others, are a rewarding wildlife viewing experience.
The vacant burrows are also used by at-risk burrowing owls, cottontail rabbits, small rodents, snakes and hawks. Meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and other birds are found in greater numbers in prairie dog towns than in the surrounding rangeland because they are attracted to the open spaces, where seeds and insects are more accessible.
Prairie dogs can be viewed at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and Prairie Dog WPA.
The pronghorn is extremely fast, with a top speed of up to 60 miles per hour, and with its high-capacity respiratory system and slender, strong legs, can easily outrun any other animal that tries to catch it. While commonly called an antelope, it is actually, but the sole-surviving species in a family of animals found only in North America.
Pronghorn can be found in Panhandle and western Sandhills on open range. Southern Kimball County, Fort Robinson and the Oglala National Grasslands are reliable locations.
There are 13 species of bats in Nebraska. They eat insects at night and can be readily seen at dusk. There are differences between bat flight and bird flight, but in general, bats fly quite well and maneuver through the air with sharper turns than birds. They can be found flying in virtually all habitats in Nebraska, even in urban environments.
The river otter is the largest member of the Mustelidae family which, in Nebraska, includes the mink, weasels, skunks and badgers. Extirpated by the 1920s in Nebraska due to habitat loss and unregulated trapping, the river otter has made an outstanding comeback in Nebraska thanks to reintroduction efforts by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Biologists released 159 otters in the state between 1986 and 1991. The descendants of those animals and otters that have swam in from other states in recent years can now be found on nearly every major river in the state.
At any given time, otters may occupy only a few miles of stream, but will often move from one area to another and throughout the course of a year, may occupy 50 or more miles of stream course. Otters exhibit more play behavior than most wild animals, including wrestling, chasing other otters, tossing and diving for rocks and clam shells and occasionally sliding. Although sliding can be a play activity and otters will repeatedly slide down a wet bank, sliding is more commonly a wintertime mode of overland travel. Otters will bound several times and then use their momentum to slide in the snow for 10 feet or more.
Seldom seen, their sign is readily found. After a snowfall, visit a river and see if you can find the Morse code pattern of their tracks.