Habitat Protection & Maintenance
The natural habitat of the Platte River and surrounding landscape were formed over millennia. The natural forces that shaped this environment include periodic floods, drought, fire, and other climatic factors.
Once a braided river more than a mile wide, interlaced with sandbars and surrounded by a sea of grass – the Platte River we see today is highly altered from its historic condition. The Crane Trust seeks to maintain a glimpse of what was and the wildlife that depends on this system through habitat management.
Fires once burned across Platte River grasslands every 3 to 6 years. Their effect on the landscape was obvious, as trees were limited to isolated pockets and Platte River Islands. Today, the Crane Trust conducts prescribed fires throughout the year, but mainly during spring as a means of limited encroachment by woody species and maintaining grassland habitats for wildlife that rely on them. These fires are healthy for the environment and wildlife respond favorably just after the burns.
Periodic floods still happen along the Platte, but without the intensity, frequency, or effect that they once had. These scouring floods once erased vegetation from within the Platte’s channel and banks, providing roosting, feeding, and foraging habitat for a variety of migratory birds and local wildlife. As a way of keeping the river free of vegetation and necessary sediments on the move (yes, sandbars move downstream, very slowly), the Crane Trust tills vegetation up by discing and cutting overgrown islands and banks. This management is largely to thank for the habitat that remains today, allowing sandhill cranes and other waterfowl to seek the Platte in vast numbers each spring.
Like burning and floods, large herds of grazers once had an influencing force on the grasslands of the Platte River Valley. Today, the grass and the grazers are less common, but still exist. Cattle production relies on grassland forage, and cattle grazing closely resembles the affect that bison once had – they consume vegetation, disturb the soil surface, cycle new nutrients into the earth in the form of waste, and allow a variety of plants a chance at sunlight that thick grasses might otherwise overcrowd. The Crane Trust is on the forefront of using grazers to manage grasslands, and has recently reintroduced bison into the system as well. Studies are ongoing to determine how these two species impact vegetation and wildlife in different ways.
Chemical application is sometimes the only defense against non-native plant species capable of outcompeting native vegetation and permanently transforming Platte River habitat. In those cases, the Crane Trust uses aquatic-safe herbicides to keep bad plants in check. This tool also functions as a way of keeping sandpit islands free of vegetation for use by least terns and piping plovers.