For over 40 years, the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary has protected habitat along the Platte River for the benefit of migratory birds in the Central Flyway. Rowe Sanctuary works in cooperation with several conservation organizations to provide optimum roosting habitat on the river for Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes, nesting habitat for Interior Least Terns and Piping Plovers, and breeding habitat for a suite of declining grassland nesting birds including Bobolinks and Grasshopper Sparrows.
Managing the Platte River
According to some historical accounts, the Platte River was "a mile wide and an inch deep". Wetlands and wet meadows bordered the Platte to capture and hold water that escaped past its banks, and tallgrass prairie extended outward from the wetlands and wet meadows. Each Spring, snow melt from the Rocky Mountains would provide scouring flows that removed new vegetation grown up on sandbars during the previous growing season.
Today, reduced flows in the river make it necessary for mechanical clearing to maintain wide channels and open sandbars that cranes and other species prefer. Large equipment is used to remove woody vegetation on established islands. Once the island has been cleared, it is disked in order to inhibit the woody growth even further. This process must be repeated over time; otherwise the trees will come back.
Dealing with Invasive Species
With each passing year, management work within the river channel has become more difficult due to invasive plants. Non-native species such as purple loosestrife and phragmites have spread at an alarming rate in the Platte River valley and other species such as salt cedar and yellow flag iris are looming threats. These plants remove an incredible amount of water from the river, while at the same time choking out native heterogeneity. Rowe Sanctuary works closely with local, state and federal agencies to combat this ever growing threat to the Platte River basin.
The Importance of Wet Meadows
Rich wet meadows along the river have all but disappeared due to conversion to other uses. Today, it is estimated that only 10 percent of the historic habitat is suitable for target species. These areas play an important role during the cranes' stay in March and early April. Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes utilize open meadows for feeding, loafing and as secondary roost sites.
Native prairie is defined as land that has never been cultivated and consist of grasses and flowering plants (forbs) that were originally found in this region. Rowe Sanctuary has over 1000 acres of native prairie and an additional 300 acres of restored grasslands.
The prairie and wet meadow areas are managed on a rotational basis with a combination of haying, grazing, prescribed burning, rest and treatment of invasive trees and weeds.