When nearby wetlands are dry or frozen, millions of migrating ducks and geese loaf on the river in between feeding flights to agricultural fields. Recent studies of female pintails equipped with satellite transmitters show that the Platte is a favorite stopping point for birds migrating north from wintering grounds in Texas and New Mexico. This winged spectacle is celebrated by local migration festivals and tourism ventures and infuses millions of dollars annually into rural communities, adding an important, diverse source of income. The birds are also welcomed by hundreds of landowners sharing a passion for conserving the river's wetland resources and the rich waterfowling traditions surrounding them.
But the Platte is not without its challenges. Today's river contains only a portion of the wetland habitat that existed historically. Early settlers described the Platte as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” a wild, meandering river with abundant sand bars and backwater sloughs. After years of water diversions and reservoir developments, the Platte has lost 70 percent of its historic flows and 80 percent of its channel width. Many seasonal wetlands and backwater sloughs that were once abundant in the Platte's floodplain have been converted to other land uses.
More recently, housing developments, especially on stretches near the Rocky Mountains, are threatening the rural character of the river and placing increasing demands on its limited water supplies. Today, the Platte is one of the West's most contested rivers. It provides habitat for four threatened and endangered species in central Nebraska, while also providing drinking water to 3.5 million people and irrigation for 2 million acres of farmland. When snow in its headwaters falls short, channel flows are not sufficient to meet the demands of all the Platte's users.
Despite all of these changes, the river continues to provide some of the most important waterfowl migration habitat on the continent. Although wintering waterfowl numbers have declined on the Platte in recent years, it continues to offer some of the finest waterfowling in the country, attracting hunters from across the nation, including people from as far away as Florida, California, and Washington. Year in and year out, the Platte River boasts some of the highest mallard harvests in the entire Central Flyway.