New Dawn for a Prairie River

After a 40-year effort by NWF and others, a new conservation agreement brings hope to the troubled Platte River and its critical habitats for thousands of cranes and waterfowl

  • Les Line
  • Oct 01, 2007
THE PLATTE RIVER has never won the respect afforded other major North American rivers, such as the Columbia, Colorado or Missouri. In Centennial, his epic novel about the settlement of the Central Plains, James Michener dismissed the Platte as “a sad, bewildered nothing of a river. . . . It’s a sand bottom, a wandering afterthought, a useless irritation, a frustration. . . .” Indeed, the river’s name, bestowed by French explorers in 1739, simply means “flat.”

The unfettered Platte at that time may have been no Rio Grande, but it was a classic braided river unlike any other watercourse south of Canada, with shallow channels that were two or three miles wide in places. Its lush native grasslands fed the bison herds that provided sustenance to a variety of Plains Indian tribes.

Its broad valley played a momentous role in the settling of the West, serving as a sort of superhighway for prairie schooners bound for Oregon and other unknown places as well as the route for the first leg of the great transcontinental railroad.

Perhaps due to the low esteem in which the river has been held, the Platte has been used and abused during the past 100 years. Fifteen dams have bottled up its water for agriculture, energy and a thirsty metropolis, leaving only a relative trickle to flow downstream and sometimes less than that. It’s not unusual for the Platte to go dry in places in summer. Because of that lack of water, especially seasonal surges, the river’s once-rich ecosystem has been severely degraded. Still, the Platte hosts one of the world’s most thrilling wildlife spectacles, the gathering of a half million migrating sandhill cranes that feed, rest and begin their courtship rituals there.

Progress is on its way, however: Late last year, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne and the governors of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska signed an agreement creating the Platte River Recovery Program, designed to benefit wildlife habitat along the river. “The recovery program is a very important first step in healing this river,” says Carolyn Greene, NWF’s program director in Boulder, Colorado. “The next step is to get Congress to provide the funds for initiating it. If we can do that, we’ll be on our way to creating and improving wildlife habitat along the river.”

Think of the Platte as three distinct rivers that together collect drainage from a 90,000-square-mile basin encompassing large areas of Wyoming and Colorado and most of Nebraska. (The Cornhusker State’s name comes from a Siouan word meaning “flat water.”) The North Platte and South Platte begin in the Colorado Rockies and course 665 and 450 miles, respectively, before converging near the city of North Platte, Nebraska. The main stem then rambles eastward another 310 miles before adding its meager flow to the Missouri.

Because the Platte drains one of the most arid regions of the Great Plains, its water comes largely from snowmelt in the high headwaters. Except for seasonal torrents, such as a six-week flood in 1916 that followed record snowfalls, the river never carried a whole lot of water. It did, however, carry so much sand that one Oregon Trail diarist wrote of “water so completely filled with glittering particles of micah and isinglass that its shining waves look to be rich with floating gold.” In a sense it was gold, for sediments carried from the Rocky Mountains and High Plains over a span of 2 million years yielded a gentle, fertile landscape richly clothed in native grasses.

Those alluvial riches would cause a total transformation of the wild river, slowly at first and then in a rush, as another kind of gold—kernels of field corn—became the crop of choice for farmers who settled in south-central Nebraska along the Big Bend Reach, the stretch of the river where migrating cranes gather to rest and feed. By the mid-1860s, early settlers had dug the first irrigation ditches to siphon water from the Platte. By 1890 more than 2,000 diversion canals were in place, and in 1909 the first of the big reclamation dams, Pathfinder, blocked the north fork in Wyoming where it was joined by the Sweetwater River, a major tributary.

But real trouble for the Big Bend came in the late 1970s with the closing of the gates of the last big dam, Grayrocks, on the Laramie River, another North Platte tributary—part of a huge irrigation project. Today, peak flow in the Big Bend has declined by 70 percent since the first measurements were made near Kearney, Nebraska, in 1915. The “micah and isinglass” collect in submerged dunes behind large dams that divert water from the north fork to a half-million acres of cropland, mostly corn. Meanwhile, the South Platte’s flow is contained by other reservoirs that provide drinking water for a burgeoning Denver area that has outstripped the ability of aquifers to sustain its million-plus residents—a fourth of all Coloradans.

Before the dams were built, the annual rush of snowmelt swept away willows, shrubs and other vegetation that tried to gain a foothold in the streambed. This scouring kept the river wide open, the perfect gathering place for migrating waterbirds, allowing them to spot predators from a long distance. After the dams cut the flow, the Platte’s main stem was largely shrunken and choked into narrow, deep channels between sandbar islands overgrown with willows and cottonwoods. Now, safe river-bottom roosting sites—where the lanky, rusty-gray sandhill cranes can roost for four to six weeks in areas with a clear view of approaching danger—are at a premium.

The sandhills are not the only wildlife of special note along the Big Bend. A number of whooping cranes from the world’s only wild flock, totaling 239 birds last spring, use the river and its adjacent wet meadows as a stopover point on their long spring trek from the Texas coast to breeding grounds in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The piping plover and interior least tern, also on the federal Endangered Species List, need barren sandbars for nesting. A fourth federally protected species, the pallid sturgeon, is found in the lower Platte. A multitude of other migratory and resident birds also count on this critical habitat, including tens of thousands of waterfowl and the bald eagles that follow and feed on them.

Cranes were coming to the Platte valley to feast on seeds of native prairie grasses and forbs long before fur-traders mentioned seeing the spectacular birds in the early 1800s. Today, nearly half the floodplain is planted in corn, compared to 22 percent in 1911. Paradoxically, waste corn lying in the fields is the primary reason that the number of sandhills visiting the Big Bend has soared from some 20,000, when the first census was made in the Grand Island, Nebraska, area in the 1940s, to a half million today. Corn, however, is a warm-season crop requiring a lot of irrigation, making water a precious commodity to farmers. Irrigated land in south-central Nebraska produces an average of 145 bushels of corn per acre, while dryland farming yields only 65 bushels.

Most farmers are generally happy to see their fields full of cranes in spring because the birds remove 95 percent of the hybrid kernels that might otherwise sprout into weedy plants. “Problems arise between farmers and wildlife because so many irrigation wells have been put in that there is just not enough water to go around anymore,” says Tom Dougherty, an NWF senior advisor. “Even ranchers are complaining that streams that used to run through their properties are drying up due to over drilling of groundwater. We have worked hard to make sure the Platte can still function as a river for people as well as wildlife.”

Dougherty has been involved in Platte River issues for “40 painful years.” He was president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate, when the Missouri Basin Power Project completed Grayrocks Dam to provide cooling water for its new Laramie River generating station. Nebraska state officials and NWF objected to its construction, claiming it would jeopardize irrigation and wildlife downstream, especially whooping cranes. Lawsuits were filed and the Endangered Species Act invoked by conservation groups, led by NWF. Congress eventually granted Grayrocks an exemption from the Endangered Species Act. To avoid further litigation and construction delays, the power company gave $7.5 million to NWF to fund the Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust, created to monitor the birds and to restore their habitat.

The trust has since acquired 10,000 acres of that habitat, mainly native grassland and wet meadows, along the Platte and reclaimed 38 miles of open river channel, clearing trees from sandbars and banks and disking to uproot remaining vegetation. NWF’s ultimate goal, however, was to win a significant increase in the amount of water flowing in the Big Bend during critical periods. In 1997 the three basin states and the Department of the Interior signed a cooperative agreement that was to lead to a water and habitat conservation plan for the Platte within three years. Instead, it took nearly 10 years of what Greene describes as “brutal meetings” with attorneys, water users, state officials and scientists, plus a National Academy of Sciences study and a 16-pound Environmental Impact Statement to conclude the Platte River Recovery Program. “It was hard for conservationists to remain optimistic,” Dougherty says. “To most of the people in the room, hashing out the words and the sentences, wildlife was not a priority. But we stayed in the fight, as we had for the 30 years before that, because the river is vital to sandhill cranes and other wildlife. Nearly all the sandhill cranes in North America stop along the Platte during migration. We couldn’t let that region collapse.”

The recovery program will provide $187 million in federal funds over 13 years for restoration and protection of critical habitat along the Big Bend and, eventually, up to 150,000 acre-feet of water annually for the benefit of fish and wildlife. To achieve that goal, Colorado and Nebraska will have to find ways to curtail Platte water use as well as to buy back rights from farmers. “Unfortunately, while negotiations dragged on and on, more water was pumped out of the river, thousands of new groundwater wells were installed for center-pivot irrigation, and the habitat became even more degraded, making our job even more difficult,” says NWF Farm Bill Outreach Coordinator Duane Hovorka, who led the Nebraska Wildlife Federation during the tense talks, putting some 300,000 miles on his car to attend meetings and other activities.

Nevertheless, hydrologist Dan Luecke, an NWF contractual consultant, emphasizes the brighter side: “This agreement starts the process of regulating the use of water from the North and South Platte as well as from aquifers in Nebraska. It is the beginning of a new approach to water rights that incorporates wildlife concerns.”

Hovorka, too, sees cause for optimism in these developments. “We’re not going to return to the 1800s when the Platte would crash down the valley in spring,” he says. “But we can restore a semblance of the river that we read about in history books.”

Les Line has watched sandhill cranes sliding into their Platte River roosts at sunset and flown the length of the North Platte in a small plane to the river’s source near the Continental Divide.

NWF Priority: Protecting the Great Waters

The Platte River is not the only aquatic habitat that NWF is seeking to protect. Many of the nation’s large-scale water ecosystems face potentially catastrophic threats, including global warming and development. Through federal legislation, grassroots organizing and education, NWF is working to protect the Everglades, coastal Louisiana, the Great Lakes and Puget Sound, along with the many wildlife species that depend on them. To learn more, visit

America’s Crane River: A Birding Extravaganza

The sandhill cranes come each year as winter brightens into spring, gliding out of the sky on outstretched wings to settle into the shallow waters of the Platte River and the empty farm fields that flank the stream. Their numbers build as spring arrives, thousands coming in daily until their number exceeds half a million, their bugling voices fill the skies above central Nebraska, and they have created the largest gathering of cranes in the world.

About 80 percent of North America’s sandhill cranes stop to feed and rest along the Platte during spring migration. Confederate gray with touches of buff and a scarlet patch of bare skin above the beak and eyes, the sandhill crane at 3 feet tall, with a 6-foot wingspan, is one of the largest of North America’s birds. They come to the Platte from wintering grounds in Texas, New Mexico, Mexico and parts of the Gulf Coast, starting in February and peaking in late March and early April. They gather along the 80-mile stretch of the Platte called the Big Bend and rarely stray more than a mile from the river during their six-week stay.

They spend more than half their daylight hours in the farmlands bordering the river, feeding on corn left on the ground from the previous harvest. About 6 percent of the corn grown there remains after harvest, and farmers put cattle into the fields to eat it up. But the cattle eat only about half. The cranes zero in on what is left, eating about 15 percent of what the bovines leave behind. This corn accounts for about 90 percent of the weight that the cranes gain during their Nebraska sojourn.

The cranes feed in native grasslands, too, and in hayfields, eating not only plant matter but also earthworms, snails and other invertebrates. When they head north to nesting grounds in Alaska, parts of Siberia and northwestern Canada—flying as high as 13,000 feet on a journey that may span 6,000 miles—they will use up nearly half their body fat.

NWF staff worked for decades to protect the Platte, one of the last major resting and feeding sights for the cranes. In protecting the river, NWF succeeded also in protecting a unique wildlife resource critical not only to sandhill cranes but also to millions of duck and geese and scores of bald eagles. The cranes can be viewed at the National Audubon Society’s Lillian Annette Rowe Bird Sanctuary during the appropriate season. For information on seeing this stunning wildlife spectacle, contact sanctuary staff at 308-468-5282, or visit Reservations for spring visits are accepted as early as January 2.

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