Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



National Park Service (NPS), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), Nebraska Public Power District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) - Region 6 Water Resources Division, USFWS - Region 6 Aquatic Nuisance Species Coordinator, Missouri Department of Conservation, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, February 2011


The Niobrara River in northern Nebraska traverses the heart of the Great Plains with portions of the river protected under the National Wild and Scenic River system managed by the National Park Service. The Niobrara River changes from a narrow, entrenched stream to a wide, highly braided river with four fish barriers and 36 distinct geomorphic segments in the lower 531 river kilometers (rkm). Our objectives were to examine the spatial and temporal patterns of fish assemblages in the Niobrara River related to environmental variables, fish barriers, and river geomorphology. Tote-barge electrofishing occurred monthly from June to September in 2009 at 17 sites downstream of Dunlap Diversion Dam near Hemingford, Nebraska (river kilometer [rkm] 531) to the mouth (rkm 0) where the Niobrara River meets the Missouri River. In all, we collected 33,888 fish from 42 species and 11 families. Species richness was greatest near the mouth (rkm 4) and subsequently declined sharply upstream of the first fish barrier (Spencer Dam; rkm 63). Monthly changes in the fish assemblages were generally low with most differences due to young of the year, large-bodied fish recruiting to the electrofishing gear. Fish barriers, both anthropomorphic and natural, had significant impacts on the fish community by blocking fish migration, creating high abundances downstream of the structures, and species absent above the barriers. Bray-Curtis dissimilarity values between sample sites ranged from 45.4 to 96.5, which indicated high variation in the fish assemblage as river geomorphic features changed. Norden Chute (rkm 193), a natural fish barrier, marked a sharp change in geomorphic structure from a highly braided river with heterogeneous diversity of habitats downstream to a single river channel with a reduced floodplain upstream. Above the chute, the fish assemblage was dominated by insectivores fish species, while downstream occurrence of piscivores increased. Based on our results, fish barriers affected the diversity and abundances of fish both upstream and downstream.