Cherry County, Nebraska
What a surprise to find fens in Nebraska! They are more much more common in New England and Minnesota. Although the plants found there were documented long ago, these wetlands were not identified as fen communities in Nebraska until 1982, when visiting botanists from South Dakota recognized them. Twelve rare plant species make their home in Sandhills fens, including buckbean and cottongrass, found nowhere else in the state.
The 3,240-acre Horse Creek Fen lies nestled in the deep dune valleys of the Sandhills of Cherry County. A distinctive part of the landscape, fens contain peat soils and high water tables supporting a rich diversity of plant life that adds to the special character of the Sandhills. They also support rare and threatened species.
Four threatened species of small fish have been found in a fen stream in Cherry County: the blacknose shiner, northern redbelly dace, pearl dace and finescale dace. Blanding's turtles, rare throughout their range, are Horse Creek Fen residents as well.
Along its course, Horse Creek harbors an array of plant communities-wet meadows, spring seeps, fen, and freshwater marsh-that are considered one of the best expressions of wetlands in the Sandhills. Wetlands interspersed in the dry expanse of the Sandhills provide habitat for a variety of birds including trumpeter swans, white pelicans, long-billed curlews and prairie chickens.
On many fens, ditching and draining have lowered the water level and degraded the native and rare plant communities significantly. Alterations have compromised their hydrology and led to the invasion of nonnative plant species that compete with native plants. They are no longer diverse communities supporting a variety of plants and animals.
Horse Creek Fen is home to the the Beginning Rancher Program, a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Sandhills Task Force. It is designed to foster prosperous ranching operations while supporting native plant and animal communities. A family now lives on Horse Creek Fen and runs a ranching operation with mentoring from Sandhills Task Force ranchers.
Partial funding for this project has been provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund.