In the northeastern quadrant of Colorado lies an oasis of grass. Named for the Pawnee, a Native American confederation of tribes living in nearby Nebraska and Kansas, Pawnee National Grassland is just one of 17 such oases dedicated to preserving North America’s rapidly diminishing prairie and the species that rely upon it. This is in comparison to the 155 National Forests designated by the U.S. Forest Service in the United States.
The short grass prairie, characterized by its dominant “short” grasses and forbs, such as blue grama and buffalo grass, and less than 12 inches of rainfall a year, is one of the most endangered habitats in the United States. This is due to expansion of agriculture, overgrazing, and encroachment due to increased human population. Recent booms in oil and gas extraction have also opened up much of the prairie to human reach, checker-boarding the prairie with roads.
Pawnee consists of 193,060 acres of land protected by the U.S. Forest Service, as well as additional acreage under other management, such as by the State of Colorado, and private citizens. In particular, Pawnee is known widely for its diversity of bird life, including declining species like Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl, and Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, which are grassland specialists, but Pawnee is also home to a surprising number of mammals.
One of the best ways to experience Pawnee is by driving the 21-mile long grassland bird loop. On my recent trip, I saw a herd of pronghorn and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel, as well as heard the howling of coyotes. Burrowing Owls are starting to return from migration and I saw my first of the season. To my great surprise and delight, I also saw my first ever Short-eared Owl!
While I haven’t been, I’ve heard that the Pawnee Buttes are a great place to hike. The buttes are 2 sedimentary rock formations that rise 300 feet above the grassland. Cliff-nesting species such as Golden Eagles and Prairie Falcons use the buttes as a nursery and so the buttes are off-limits from March 1 to June 30 each year.
All in all, Pawnee National Grassland is a great place to visit. Entry to the grassland is free and it’s rarely busy. It’s possible at certain times of day/year that you may not even encounter a single other person! You just can’t beat the solitude and peacefulness of a sea of grass waving in the breeze. Early morning or late afternoon/evening are the best times to visit, late afternoon particularly if you’re interested in seeing mammals as most are nocturnal or crepuscular.