Monday, June 28, 2010

The Sand Hills of Nebraska

Heading west out of Omaha we could have driven the 450 miles of I-80 to get to the western edge of Nebraska. However, since we had driven that boring route before, when we got to Grand Island we decided to detour and take Hwy 2 through the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

We had no idea what to expect of the Sand Hills. We found that they sure don't look anything like what we expected to see in Nebraska.

About a quarter of Nebraska is covered by the Sand Hills, so called because the hills are entirely made of - now let's not always see the same hands - sand. The Sand Hills are Pleistocene sand dunes derived from glacial outwash eroded from the Rockies, and now (mostly) stabilized by vegetation.

Dunes in the Sand Hills may exceed 330' in height. The average elevation of the Sand Hills region gradually increases from about 1,800' in the east to about 3,600'in the west.

As much as 85% of the Sand Hills region is intact natural habitat, the highest level in the Great Plains. This is chiefly due to the lack of crop production: most of the Sand Hills land has never been plowed. The plant-anchored dunes of the Sand Hills were long considered an irreclaimable desert. In the 1870s, cattlemen began to discover their potential as rangeland for longhorn cattle

The fragility of the sandy soil makes the area unsuitable for cultivation of crops. Unsuccessful attempts at farming were made in the Sand Hills region in the late 1870s and again around 1890.

Today, the Sand Hills are a productive cattle ranching area, supporting over 530,000 beef cattle. The population of the region continues to decline as older generations die out and as younger generations move to the cities.

As the largest and most intricate wetland ecosystem in the United States, the Sand Hills contain a large array of plant and animal life. Minimal crop production has led to limited land fragmentation; the resulting extensive and continuous habitat for plant and animal species has largely preserved the biodiversity of the area.

The Sand Hills are home to 314 animal species including mule deer, coyotes, red fox, meadowlarks, wild turkeys, native bat species and many fish species.

720 different species of plants are found in the Sand Hills. Of these, the majority are native, with only 7% exotics — half the percentage of most other prairie systems

Many of the plants of the Sand Hills are sand-tolerant species from short-grass, mixed-grass and tallgrass prairies; plants from all three of these can be found within the Sand Hills ecosystem. These plants have helped to stabilize the sand dunes, creating an ecosystem beneficial for other plants and animals. Better land management and grazing practices by the ranchers of the Sand Hills have led to less erosion over time, which has kept the natural landscape of the Sand Hills mostly intact.

The Sand Hills are part of the central flyway for many species of migratory birds, and the region's many bodies of water give them places to rest. The ponds and lakes of the region are lay-over points for migratory cranes, geese, and many species of ducks.

Most of the Sand Hills receives less than 20 inches of rain annually leading to the classification of the area as a semi-arid region. Plant and animal species of the Sand Hills region have adapted to the area's climatic extremes, which include 100°F summer days and -30°F winters.

If you like long trains, Nebraska Route 2 is a place to see them. They are carrying coal from Wyoming, and 140 cars is not unusual.

Thanks to Wikipedia for much of the foregoing information.


~Cheryl said...

I wasn't expecting the sand hills to be covered with plants. Guess I was thinking more sand dune than hill. Kinda pretty, though.

Mark Petersen said...

Also home of 2-3 world-class golf courses. One is called Sandhill, the others just opened. I only know this because of my love of golf. Looks like cool country there.