Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Nature & Science at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (NHS) was established in 2007, in part to preserve and protect the cultural landscape of the massacre. Protection of native biological resources, including animals, is integral to preserving the cultural landscape. Sand Creek Massacre NHS is primarily composed of shortgrass prairie and sage shrubland. Sand Creek, an intermittent stream, crosses the site. Shortgrass prairies support numerous animal and plant species, including federal and state listed endangered, threatened, and candidate species.

The natural environment has impacted the lifestyles of humans who have used the area for the past 8,000-10,000 years through the availability of resources. Humans have also left their mark on the landscape. The site and surrounding area have been affected by hunting, grazing, cultivation, water diversion, development, introduction of non-native species, and local extinction (extirpation) of native species such as pronghorn antelope and bison. The landscape of Sand Creek Massacre NHS is a record of human relationships with the natural environment, the contrasting values of Indians and Euroamericans, and their competition for limited resources. The environmental history of the site describes how the impacts of human actions contributed to how the environment changed over time.

David Zettner
Sand Creek Massacre NHS

The continued protection and preservation of these resources will contribute to the changing diversity of the ecosystem and biological communities of the Plains and Sand Creek Massacre NHS. Scientific study and observation of these resources will add to our understanding of this unique environment.


Bird habitat in Sand Creek

The diverse habitat within Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (NHS) supports numerous species of birds with a wide range of habitat needs. Stopover locations, such as the site?s riparian habitat, are limited in the prairie and are vital to long- and short-distance migratory birds. Stopover habitat is relatively uncommon in shortgrass prairie ecosystems, such as Sand Creek Massacre NHS, and allows birds to replenish essential reserves for their flight to breeding areas. The combination of prairie and riparian habitats in the site are uncommon in shortgrass prairie ecosystems and are important to numerous bird species, including species of concern. The mix of birds detected in the site suggests the habitat is healthy.

Rob Bennetts
Burrowing owls

In 2005, 59 bird species were documented in the Sand Creek Massacre NHS during an inventory. Of the species documented, 16 are also listed as species of concern in the shortgrass prairie by the Partners in Flight bird conservation program. Some species in the site require high grass structure, such as the short-eared owl and dickcissel, and others prefer low grass structure and prairie dog burrows, such as the burrowing owl and mountain plover, two Colorado species of special concern species.

Several species in the site use the riparian habitats, though they do not breed in the area: chestnut-sided warbler, clay-colored sparrow, hermit thrush, indigo bunting, Lincoln?s sparrow, Swainson?s thrush, and. Riparian areas also provide suitable habitat for many probable breeding species, most commonly the western kingbird, orchard oriole, and mourning dove. Several western meadowlarks, a common species, were detected in the site.

Hawk in Sand Creek Massacre NHS

The upland habitats also host many species listed by the Partners in Flight. These species include the Cassin?s sparrow, dickcissel, horned lark, lark bunting, lark sparrow, northern harrier, Say?s phoebe, scaled quail, short-eared owl, Swainson?s hawk, western kingbird, and western meadowlark.

The site could also support species such as the ferruginous hawk, lesser prairie chicken, and prairie falcon, though they were not detected in the 2005 survey.

Prairie Dogs

John Sovell
Black-tailed prairie dog in Sand Creek Massacre NHS

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), a member of the Sciuridae or squirrel family, is important to native shortgrass prairie ecosystems and occurs in Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (NHS). The black-tailed prairie dog is the most abundantly and widely distributed prairie dog species. Prairie dogs increase habitat diversity and contribute to grassland ecosystem processes by clipping vegetation and creating open habitats preferred by grassland birds and are proposed as a keystone species in North American grasslands. Numerous species prey on prairie dogs and use their burrows for shelter including badgers, coyotes, hawks, golden eagles, snakes, burrowing owls, and bobcats.

A burrowing owl at the entrance of a prairie dog tunnel in Sand Creek Massacre NHS

Prairie dogs historically occupied 3-7 million acres of Colorado. In 2005, they occupied approximately 630,000 acres of the state. The population decline in eastern Colorado is attributed to plague and changes in land use. Prairie dogs have been present northwest of Sand Creek Massacre NHS since the 1980s and comparison of aerial photos indicates the prairie dog complex is expanding. In 2007, 228 acres of Sand Creek Massacre NHS were occupied by two colonies with an estimated average density of 94 prairie dogs per acre. These are the largest active colonies along the Front Range in south-central and southeastern Colorado. Numerous dens of predators were also documented in the area. Burrowing owls were observed on the southern colony and mountain plover were observed near the north prairie dog colony on private land.

The Sand Creek prairie dog complex is likely to expand rapidly if left undisturbed. The high density colonies are young and are each surrounded by shortgrass prairie suitable for expansion. Prairie dog management is integral to sustaining the long-term viability of a self-sustaining Sand Creek complex, preserving the existing native plant community and allied species, and maintaining relationships with surrounding landowners.

National Park Service policy is to conserve and recover black-tailed prairie dogs wherever possible. When populations has space restrictions, prairie dogs will populate the remaining suitable habitat in high density, creating the potential for bare and disturbed soils which may be colonized by invasive exotic species.

Although they are integral to species diversity, the consideration of prairie dogs as a keystone species is controversial. The perception that prairie dogs compete with cattle for food has led to widespread poisoning that has had major impact on their population and distribution. Prairie dog populations are also susceptible to plague and other diseases that can cause severe declines in populations, recreational shooting, and habitat destruction. Populations rebound quickly after crashes.

plants includes:


David Zettner
Vegetation in Sand Creek Massacre NHS

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site (NHS), located in the Great Plains, is a combination of sandhills, mixed grass prairie, a highly productive shortgrass prairie, and wetlands. The diversity of upland grassland and riparian areas provide a unique and important habitat for birds, especially migrating and sensitive species, and other animals. Wetlands are vital to the shortgrass prairie ecosystem and also contribute significant ecological functions and wildlife habitat.

A flood in Sand Creek, 2007. The establishment of cottonwoods may be associated with flooding events.

Historic disturbances and drought affect vegetation composition of the Sand Creek Massacre NHS. These disturbances include livestock grazing, agriculture, and construction of a canal and airport landing strip. Vegetation composition shifts since 1864 may be related to introduced exotic species, changes in fire frequency, agricultural and development disturbances, and drought. Cottonwood stands lining Sand Creek date to approximately 1865-1885, though it is possible some trees were present during the massacre as seedlings or saplings. The establishment of cottonwoods may be associated with flooding events.

Vegetation is an integral part of the cultural landscape. The Sand Creek Massacre area is significant to several native Plains cultures that have historical and cultural associations with the land and its resources. The Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes traditionally used the area, though it is also associated with the Comanche, Kiowa, and Ute. In 2004, an assessment identified ethnographic resources, or resources meaningful to how a group of people identifies itself.

Bush morning-glory in Sand Creek

Approximately 829 plant species were reported as culturally significant to the associated tribes, though several were not conclusively identified. Cultural usage of plants was documented. At Sand Creek Massacre NHS, 62 plant species are known to have ethnobotanical and cultural significance to the associated tribes: 13 are culturally significant to the Arapaho, 26 to the Cheyenne, 12 to the Comanche, 22 to the Kiowa, and 8 to the Southern Ute.

Showy milkweed in Sand Creek

Several plants, including soapweed yucca and bush morning-glory, were significant to multiple tribes, while others, such as showy milkweed and locoweed, were significant to a single tribe. Use of plants has changed over time; some uses were lost while others were added, including some non-native species.

Continued research in Sand Creek Massacre NHS will expand our knowledge of the resources preserved and protected in this area.

For more in depth information on the plants and other natural resources of Sand Creek Massacre NHS, explore the links under Nature & Science or follow the links on this page.


Cottonwood trees during the fall in Sand Creek Massacre NHS

The riparian cottonwood (Populus deltoids ssp. monilifera) forests of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site are important elements of the cultural landscape and riparian ecosystem, providing shelter, timber, firewood, forage, and wildlife habitat. The trees provide important roosting, nesting, and feeding sites for birds, as well as nesting material; in Colorado, cottonwoods provide habitat for 82% of breeding bird species. During severe winters, American Indians and early settlers fed cottonwood to horses and cattle. Cottonwood trees along Big Sandy Creek?living and dead?have cultural and spiritual significance to the Cheyenne and Arapaho beyond their association with the Indian encampments attacked by the US military in 1864 during the Sand Creek Massacre.

Runoff from Sand Creek in 2007

In western North American, cottonwood establishment is flood-driven. Flooding removes competing vegetation, deposits of fresh sediment which provide essential seed germination sites, and temporary raises the water table. Trees established by these periodic episodes tend to occur along stream channels. Cottonwood stands along Big Sandy Creek are grouped in three age classes, the earliest dating to approximately 1865-1885 and 1908-1925. The third age class from 1949 to 1960. The initiation dates of the three age classes coincide with probable flood events on Big Sandy Creek.

NPS/Heidi Sosinski
Cottonwood trees line Sand Creek

It is possible some cottonwood trees were present during the 1864 massacre as seedlings or saplings. Of the trees along Big Sandy Creek, three have estimated germination dates between 1865 and 1870. Very little establishment of cottonwoods has occurred since 1965, which is typical of natural fluctuations in similar riparian ecosystems. However, land use may be a contributing factor and the lack of establishment may be more directly related to heavy grazing, trampling, or mowing in the past several decades.

Researchers conducted a tree ring study to determine the age of the trees along Sand Creek in 2007. A copy of the report is available here.


The Sand Creek Massacre is located in Kiowa County Colorado. To visit the site, follow Colorado State Highway 96 east off Highway 287 near Eads, or west off Highway 385 at Sheridan Lake. Near Chivington, turn north onto County Road 54, or at Brandon, turn north onto County Road 59. Follow these roads to their intersections with County Road W. The park entrance is along CR W a mile east (right) of CR 54 or several miles west (left) of CR 59.

Caution Large Vehicles and Motorcyclists: There is approximately eight (8) miles of dirt/sand roads leading to the site.