The Platte River: Managing the Needs of People and Wildlife in America's Heartland
The Platte River in Nebraska appears on the maps of North America dating back to the eighteenth century; Native Americans used to call it "flat water" and French fur traders referred to it as "La Platte" ("The Flat"). The shallowness of the river and the flat valley around it made this one of the great "roadways" for westward expansion. It was used by fur traders, emigrants, military expeditions, and gold seekers, and the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails followed it too.
The characteristics of the central Platte River valley also make it an incredibly important area for millions of migratory birds in the central flyway, including geese, ducks, songbirds, and even some threatened and endangered species such as piping plovers, interior least terns, and whooping cranes.
In addition to wildlife, there are vast quantities of water diverted for irrigation, agriculture and municipal uses, and more than a dozen dams regulate water flow which has significantly decreased the river's width. To accommodate the continued water development projects in the Platte River basin, and protect federally protected species, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) was created. The PRRIP is a comprehensive, basin-wide cooperative program with the goal of enhancing the recovery endangered and threatened species including the whooping crane, interior least tern, the Northern Great Plains population of the piping plover, and the pallid sturgeon, while also facilitating water development projects. In addition to the PRRIP, partnerships with other organizations such as the Crane Trust have resulted in the acquisition, protection, and management of thousands of acres of river and adjacent floodplain to benefit a variety of species.
Whooping cranes used to number in the tens of thousands across North America, but following English settlement and westward expansion, there were only an estimated 1,400 left in 1860. They were once found from the Arctic coast south to central Mexico, and from Utah east to New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Habitat loss and overexploitation caused the bird's demise and the population hit an all-time low of just 15 birds in 1941. The 15 surviving whooping cranes all belonged to one flock—the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population that migrated between Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. This flock, which still migrates through central Nebraska every spring and fall, frequently stops on the Platte River and is the basis for the ongoing recovery of this endangered species. Currently, this flock remains the only self-sustaining, wild, migratory population of whooping cranes, though conservation efforts have established experimental populations in other parts of the U.S.
In 1978, a corridor stretching approximately 56 miles (90 kilometers) long within three miles (five kilometers) of the Platte River was designated as critical habitat. The Platte River is one of many key migratory stopovers critical to whooping cranes as they complete their long migration. The Platte and other shallow water wetlands provide places to rest and refuel while offering protection from predators or migration hazards that would otherwise be encountered flying during adverse visibility and/or weather conditions.
In 1975, the Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Project was developed to collect and organize observational sightings of migrating whooping cranes and better understand, manage, and protect important migratory habitat. This database, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Nebraska Field Office, contains some of the oldest migration records and forms from one of the longest running endangered species databases in existence.
Today, biologists estimate that more than 300 whooping cranes are in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population. Habitat restoration and protection efforts continue to provide important stopover habitat these birds need during migration. In addition to the whooping crane tracking project, the Nebraska Field Office is working with public and private power companies to avoid and minimize impacts to whooping cranes from industrial and energy development. For example, by relocating or marking transmission lines with bird flight diverters, collisions by whooping cranes near high-quality roosting habitat have undoubtedly been reduced. Other projects such as cell tower and wind farm construction have resulted in design and location modifications which further reduce impacts to whooping cranes.
It is no doubt that the whooping crane faces substantial challenges on its road to recovery. But we are committed to working with our partners to ensure that the central Platte River is a safe haven for these majestic birds and an area Nebraskans can be proud of.
Wildlife and Habitat Conservation
- Conservation Planning