By Steve Adair, Ph.D.
The Platte River has long been recognized as one of America's great travel corridors. During the 18th century, French fur traders traveled the river to trade with the Pawnee and Otto native tribes. In the 19th century the Platte entered our frontier history as a part of the Oregon and Mormon trails. Early settlers utilized the river's fresh water, wooded campsites, and abundant fish and game as they made their way west in search of their fortunes.
The Platte River is also one of the great travel corridors for our continent's waterfowl. Few places on earth match the spectacle of migration that occurs on the Platte River each year. People travel from all over the world to witness firsthand the millions of ducks, geese, and cranes that descend on the river each spring to rest and refuel before continuing their journey north to prairie and arctic breeding grounds.
Approximately half a million sandhill cranes descend on the Platte River in central Nebraska. This congregation represents 80 percent of the world's population of sandhills, the largest gathering of cranes in the world.
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.
True to their nature, waterfowlers are doing their part to preserve the rich wetland resources of the Platte and the traditions that surround them. Ducks Unlimited is assisting their efforts and those of other conservation partners through its Platte River Initiative. DU is assisting landowners in their desires to leave a legacy to future generations through conservation easements that protect wetlands and the water sources that feed them. Working in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wetland Reserve Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife Program, the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, DU biologists and engineers are helping to restore some of the seasonal wetlands and backwater channels that have been lost from the river's floodplain.
Many of these restorations employ state-of-the-art water delivery systems that utilize available water in a very efficient manner and return flows to the river channel during the lean summer months when channel water is at a premium. DU wetland managers contracted by entities such as the Colorado Division of Wildlife and private landowners are working to ensure that protected and restored wetlands are producing increased food resources for migrating waterfowl to supplement waste grain in their diets.
Protecting the wetland and water resources of the Platte River alone will not sustain the waterfowl migrations to the river and the rich heritage that surrounds them. Band returns have shown that waterfowl harvested on the Platte are produced throughout the Great Plains with the most important source being the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the United States and Canada. If you hunt the Platte, the chances are good that the PPR is supplying many, if not most, of the birds you enjoy each fall and winter. The science is clear that in order to maintain Platte River waterfowl populations, we also have to secure the wetlands and grasslands of the prairies that are producing migratory birds each year. As momentum for preserving the Platte River builds, more landowners are embracing this dual conservation need: to protect the wetlands of the river and the prairie breeding grounds that feed them (see sidebar).
As we advance into the 21st century, the pressures on the water and habitats of the Platte will surely grow. But with challenges come opportunities. Most of the current landowners and conservation partners along the Platte share DU's passion for the river's wetland and waterfowl resources. By working diligently together, we can help ensure that one of America's greatest waterfowl travel corridors is preserved for our continued enjoyment and that of future generations.
Dr. Steve Adair is director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.