The Platte River is a complex ecosystem that has influenced its environment for millions of years.
The Crane Trust works to understand the complexities of the Platte River ecosystem and is making progress in preserving the ecological balance of that system. Below are a few examples of the Crane Trust scientists using technology and partnerships to better understand the systems and communicate their findings through photography, time-lapse videos and other means in order to share information to reach a much broader audience outside of the scientific community.
» Using GPS Transmitters to Study Whooping Cranes
The Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping cranes belong to the only self-sustaining population in existence. Currently at about 300 birds, their numbers are increasing but still remain threateningly low. Scientists have learned that one of the times when young cranes face the most risk is the two to three months when they migrate between their Canadian breeding grounds and Texas winter home.
Since 2009, the Crane Trust scientists, in cooperation with the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, and the Canadian Wildlife Service with support from the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, International Crane Foundation, and Parks Canada have placed GPS transmitters on more than 60 whooping cranes in Canada and Texas. These transmitters provide us with as many as four locations for each bird per day. This allows us to follow the cranes’ movements and learn more about their migration habits and habitat between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Recent captures have met study plan objectives and no new capture activities are currently planned. We expect to collect data through 2016. Already, we have learned much about the timing of the cranes’ movements, where they stop during migration, and how they use their winter and nesting habitat. The results of this study will give us a better understanding of crane migratory behavior and may help us to assess the risks whooping cranes face on their yearly 5,000 mile round trip.
» Response of Vegetation and Wildlife to Land Management and Hydrology
The Crane Trust owns and manages lands that are dominated by wet meadows and mixed and tall-grass prairies, a habitat type that is now rare in the Great Plains due to changes in land use and alteration to river flows. The Trust actively manages its lands by burning grasslands and grazing cattle and bison, in an effort to mimic natural disturbances by wildfire and bison grazing that once shaped this ecosystem.
Wet meadows associated with the Platte River vary in local topography, with water-filled, linear depressions, known as sloughs, surrounded by drier upland habitats, that combined create a diversity of habitats for wildlife, plants, and insects.
The objective of this research is to understand how vertebrates—amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals—respond to land management (burning and grazing) and variation in local hydrology on lands managed by the Trust.
Collaborative research is underway between researchers at the Crane Trust and the University of Nebraska to study these interactions. Because the Trust manages some of the largest areas of wet meadow habitat remaining on the Platte, it serves as a reference for how parts of the river may have functioned historically. Results of these studies will help people understand the diversity and abundance of vertebrates and vegetation that may have once existed in other parts of the Platte River. Results also will assist the Trust in evaluating the success of its land management activities for supporting a diversity of organisms. These studies and monitoring efforts are ongoing and serve as a critical tool in the adaptive management of Crane Trust properties.
» Understanding the Ecological Role of Bison along the Platte River
Historically, the American bison was a common sight in Nebraska. Their 150-year absence from the Platte River Valley has prompted land managers and researchers to speculate the impacts the vast herds once had on grasslands and wet meadows along the Platte River.
At the Crane Trust, cattle grazing is used to manage vegetation in a way that promotes healthy habitats and high biodiversity. Various grazing systems have been used on Crane Trust properties, and ultimately the recipe for sustainable grasslands has included doses of grazing, rest, fire, and some mechanical means of vegetation control. As management changes and we adapt to the new things science tells us about maintaining critical Platte River grasslands, we strive to research and understand as much about how management affects the plants and animals that inhabit these lands as possible.
Now, those studies can have a new focus as we have reintroduced bison to some properties near our headquarters on Shoemaker Island. Currently we are researching how bison impact upland and lowland plant communities relative to cattle. In the future, we plan to expand studies to include bison-crane interactions, both direct and indirect, as a means of learning how the addition of this historic grazer can benefit migratory birds.
» Studying Sandhill Cranes Using Time Lapse Photography
Wet meadows adjacent the Platte River provide important migratory, feeding, and nesting habitats for more than 150 species of birds and other wildlife in central Nebraska. Most wet meadows of the Platte River Valley have been drained and/or converted to cropland and other uses over the last several decades. As a result, wet meadows are now rare along the Platte River relative to their historical distribution.
The objective of this research is to understand how wet meadows and the Platte River serve sandhill cranes staging in the Central Platte River Valley during spring. Thousands of images have been captured and analyzed to determine how sandhill cranes interact and obtain resources while in Nebraska. The images we have acquired allow us to see cranes as they’ve never been seen before and are both fascinating and educational. The Crane Trust is currently studying images to summarize findings and learn how new technology can be applied to studies of animal behavior. This material has been formatted to serve as an outreach tool to help the public understand just how special Platte River habitat is to migratory birds, and to offer a glimpse of the untold beauty made possible by Crane Trust lands.