Platte River Habitat
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.
Modern demands on the river have dramatically changed the habitat. Reduced flows in the river make it necessary for mechanical widening of channels and clearing of sandbars to create and maintain the wide, shallow habitat that cranes and other species prefer. Audubon has 40 years of success working on the Platte River with partners and private landowners to protect and restore habitat for migrating cranes at Rowe Sanctuary and throughout the critical reach of the Central Platte River. Intensive management of the river channel to recreate these historic conditions on Audubon’s property has resulted in the largest Sandhill Crane roost along the river each spring, holding up to 220,000 cranes on a given night.
The habitat complex at Rowe Sanctuary provides the critical combination of roosting, foraging, and loafing areas migrating cranes need to refuel for their northward migration. Shallow, unobstructed roost sites within the main channel of the river provide overnight roosts, nearby crop fields provide access to abundant waste grain, and wet meadows bordering the river function as secondary roost and loafing sites as well as providing invertebrates with key nutrients and minerals not found in grains. The complex also boasts the highest incidence of Whooping Crane sightings on the Platte River during migration over the past twenty years.
The Platte River at Rowe Sanctuary is also critical habitat for many migratory birds other than cranes. Thousands of ducks and geese utilize the river as they also head north or overwinter on groundwater fed warm sloughs along the Platte. Following these waterfowl, Rowe Sanctuary hosts migratory eagles as well, sometimes numbering nearly 100 individuals. Shorebirds, like Greater Yellowlegs or Semipalmated Sandpipers, also rest here on the way to their breeding grounds.
Of course, the Platte River is not just for the birds. Wildlife of all kinds rely on the river for food, water, or shelter. White-tailed Deer are frequent sights along the banks, especially in the morning and evening. River Otters have made a comeback in Nebraska and the central Platte River is a stronghold for these fascinating animals. Protecting this river for Sandhill Cranes means protecting it for all of the wildlife that call Rowe Sanctuary home.
Human development is not the only threat to the Platte River. With each passing year, management work within the river channel becomes 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 vegetation. Rowe Sanctuary is an active partner with local, state and federal agencies to combat this ever growing threat to the Platte River basin.