- The refuge lies on the site of historic Fort Niobrara, a military post built in 1879 to keep the peace between settlers and the Sioux on the nearby Rosebud Reservation.
During its 27 years of existence Fort Niobrara was a quiet place, soldiers fought no battles, but were kept busy maintaining the fort and drilling. The fort was abandoned in 1906 and made into a remount station for the cavalry. By 1912 even this activity was discontinued and the fort dismantled. All that remains is one building (the red barn), old foundations, and earth works. At this time part of the land that was part of the fort was converted to what is now the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge.
The Niobrara River flows through the prairie forming a canyon in a prairie landscape. Here prairie meets woodland and plants and animals from Sandhills prairie, western coniferous forest, northern boreal forest, eastern deciduous forest, and tall and short grass prairie are represented. This unique mix of habitats supports 57 species of mammals, 45 of fish, 28 of reptiles and amphibians, and 225 of birds.
Most animals and plants found here historically are still present. In winter bald and golden eagles ride updrafts along the river canyon. Turkey and white-tailed deer prefer the wooded canyon while mule deer and both sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens favor the grasslands. Prairie dogs live in a town along with burrowing owls and rattlesnakes. Meadow larks and upland sandpipers are often seen perched or singing from a fence post.
Herds of 400 buffalo, 60 elk, and 325 Texas longhorns are preserved on the prairies found on the refuge. Buffalo, once numbering in the millions, were brought to near extinction at the turn of the century. At this time a small herd was donated to the refuge and became the foundation for a herd that grew and allowed the refuge to donate animals that were the start of new herds across the plains. To this day the refuge provides buffalo to start new herds. Elk also once flourished on the prairie and can be found grazing on prairie grasses on the refuge. Since 1935 a herd of Texas longhorns, the breed of cowboys and cattle drives, has been maintained and managed to preserve this piece of living history.
The 19,000-acre Fort Niobrara NWR is located in north central Nebraska on the northern edge of the Sandhills.