In 1935, this 72,000-acre refuge (complex) was established 25 miles south of Valentine as a sanctuary and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife. The Refuge is a showcase for the representative habitat of the Sandhills in northcentral Nebraska, an attractive mixture of native mixed grass (shortgrass) prairie and numerous wetlands, wet meadows, lakes, and marshes.
The current bird list at the Refuge numbers 270 species; 108 of them have been recorded nesting. The Refuge's many water features attract large numbers of shorebirds, waterfowl, colonial waterbirds, and wetland specialists. Trumpeter Swans, American Bitterns, Western Grebes, and many species of ducks remain for the summer to raise broods. Hundreds of American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants can be seen during migration. The upland prairies support many different grassland-dependent species, such as the Greater Prairie-Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Sandpiper, Dickcissel, and Grasshoppper Sparrow.
Most of the native species of fish, wildlife, and plants found on the Refuge are still present today. Invasive exotic plants and animals, however, are present and expanding. Non-native grasses such as smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass compete with native warm season grasses in meadows. Purple loosestrife, Canada thistle, and reed canary grass have been found in wetlands. Cedar and cottonwood trees have popped up in the prairie. A combination of prescribed fire, controlled grazing, and herbicides have been used to attack these plants. Common carp are present in most of the lakes and are reducing vegetation and invertebrates important to birds. Only limited control in few areas has been successful.
Looming in the future is the possible export of underground water from the Sandhills of Nebraska. If this is permitted and extensive enough, pumping will lower the water table and dry up lakes, wetlands, and sub-irrigated meadows. These are the most productive areas for many species of wildlife.
The Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior.