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.
The Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping cranes belong to the only self-sustaining population in existence. Currently at an estimated 405-430 Whooping Cranes, their numbers are increasing but still remain threateningly low. Scientists have learned that migration is much less dangerous for Whooping Cranes than predicted. However, it is still one of the most dangerous times for juvenile Whoopers, but not by much.
Beginning in 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 placed GPS transmitters on more than 60 whooping cranes in Canada and Texas. These transmitters provided us with as many as four locations for each bird per day. This allowed us to follow the cranes’ movements on their nearly 5,000 mile round trip between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Data collection on this project was finished in 2016, and the task of analyzing hundreds of data points across the United States and Canada has begun. One paper, summarizing much of the data and evaluating the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program has been published as a USGS publication. Future research includes: whooping crane habitat on wintering grounds, the entire migratory flyway, and the summering grounds, juvenile whooping crane behavior and movement, and migration ecology as a whole. Stay tuned to our publications list and newsletter to get developments.
The Crane Trust owns and manages lands that are dominated by wet meadows and tallgrass 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 that once shaped this ecosystem. We utilize adaptive management techniques to maximize biodiversity, and long-term monitoring helps us improve and evaluate our efforts.
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. This habitat has primarily been lost due to changing hydrology as it is generally too wet to till, unlike tallgrass prairie of which 90% has been tilled under for agriculture.
Each summer the Crane Trust surveys vegetation and birds to evaluate the impact of our land management actions on improving the habitat, which responds directly to management, and the density of our migratory birds. 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. Additionally, by using standard methods over long periods of time we can actually track the response of biological communities to new environmental conditions such as climate change, West Nile outbreaks, ecological changes, and management actions such as invasive tree removal and prescribed fire. These studies and monitoring efforts are ongoing and serve as a critical tool in the adaptive management of Crane Trust properties and can be broadly applied to other similar habitats.
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.
Since 2015 we have studied our reintroduced herd in a variety of ways including: their behavior, wallowing ecology, and impacts on vegetation, birds, and small mammals. Currently we have begun a partnership with University of Nebraska Kearney to promote even more research on bison and their impacts on native tallgrass prairie.
Sandhill Cranes have been migrating to the Platte River as long as people can remember, and since 2002 the Crane Trust has been monitoring their migration. The crane count we report each week during crane season is thanks to this program. From this project we have been able to share the best practices for keeping the Platte River Sandhill Crane friendly.
The main objective of this study is to evaluate management of the Platte River and observe long-term trends in Sandhill Crane migration and roost ecology. From this data, partnered with tracking projects, we can estimate the crane population, model weather impacts on migration, evaluate spatial trends, and check ourselves as a conservation organization dedicated to protecting migratory bird habitat. We partner with many conservation organizations in Nebraska to collect and work through this data in a collaborative effort to make sure the Sandhill Cranes do not abandon their ancestral migration stopover on the Platte River made possible by historical land owners and conservation organizations like the Crane Trust.