The Central and North Platte Geographic Focus Area includes the 90-mile segment of the Platte River from Lexington to Chapman – often referred to as the Big Bend – in south-central Nebraska, plus an 80-mile stretch of the North Platte River between Lewellen and the city of North Platte.
The river system was once a mosaic of braided channels, shifting sandbars, sloughs, and low, sandy banks lined by wet meadows – tallgrass prairie communities fed by high groundwater along the rivers’ edges.
Much of the Platte Valley’s fertile floodplain has been converted to row crops and other agricultural uses. Large dams, particularly on the North Platte River, have reduced sediment loads as well as streamflows and moderated natural fluctuations, which historically shaped this dynamic ecosystem. As a result, over the last century the once wide river channel has narrowed by over 80% in many locations and been replaced by riparian woodland that established on dry former channel bed. The river corridor also has been degraded by invasive plant encroachment including Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), common reed (Phragmites australis), and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Channel incision (i.e., down-cutting) has deepened the channels in many areas, divorcing portions of both rivers from their floodplains and thus threatening wet meadow habitat.
The RWBJV is providing technical resources to help partners evaluate, monitor, and manage Platte River and North Platte River habitats. Conservation partners are focused on: 1) providing high-quality wet meadows and grassland habitat for foraging cranes and grassland nesting birds, and, 2) reducing woodland encroachment in active river channels and adjacent wet meadows.
Why It Matters
Each spring, the vast majority of the world’s Sandhill Cranes stage in the central Platte River Valley; this stretch of the Platte also provides migration habitat for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl, and shorebirds. An estimated 160,000 grassland birds nest annually in the over 140,000 acres of wet meadows and other grasslands along the river. Interior Least Terns and Piping Plovers nest on sandbars in the river channels or at channel-side gravel mining sites.
The North Platte River provides important migration habitat for Sandhill Cranes, geese, and ducks. The stretch of river in the Geographic Focus Area is lined by a high density of wetlands and wet meadows as well as about 16,000 acres of grasslands dominated by mixed-grass prairie species.
The same waters that are essential to these riparian habitats provide irrigation that increases and stabilizes the agricultural yields of south-central Nebraska’s highly productive soils. Groundwater connected to the Platte River provides municipal water for communities along the river. Additionally, restored channels not only improve habitat, but help reduce local flooding caused by extremes in precipitation.