KEARNEY, NEB. – Sandhill cranes that gather on the Platte River are the main attraction each spring near this city in south-central Nebraska.
Hundreds of thousands of the long-legged, wide-bodied birds use the Platte as a staging area to rest and feed before resuming their 5,000 mile migration north.
The Platte River is also the focus of a 13-year, $320 million restoration effort designed to protect the whooping crane, least tern and piping plover and create habitat for other wildlife.
The headquarters of Headwaters Corp, which is leading the restoration program, was our first top on a science and environmental tour through sandhill crane country.
Public project; private firm
The Headwaters effort is the first time a private, for-profit company has run a complex restoration program funded by federal agencies and state governments – in this case Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.
Leaders of other restoration projects triggered by the Endangered Species act are keeping an eye on the Platte River project, which may serve as a more effective model.
— By Margaret Berglund
The goal: 10,000 acres
The project has made progress toward its goal of acquiring 10,000 acres along a stretch of the Platte River in the Big Bend Reach between the towns of Lexington and Chapman.
To date, about 6,000 acres of land has been purchased, leased or put into conservation easements to restore habitat for the three endangered species of birds and create habitat for other wildlife.
Jerry Kenny, who’s leading the restoration work for Headwaters, credited the success of acquiring this much land to economic situations and luck of timing.
When the program began acquiring land in 2008, some older farmers were looking to sell and retire since their children weren’t interested in farming.
“It provided an excellent opportunity for them to cash out and be able to sell to people who were going to be good stewards to the land,” Kenny said.
The economic situation also worked in the program’s favor, he said.
Before the economic downtown, a portion of the land in the area was used for recreational hunting. When the economy went south, hunters weren’t looking for as much land and therefore weren’t competitors to the program.
“Not only did we not get any competition from that sector,” Kenny said. “But those guys were able to cut losses and get out.”
— By Rebecca Lewis
Not the river it used to be
The Platte River of today looks and flows nothing like it did a century ago.
When settlers moving west came to its banks, the Platte was a wide, shallow stream fed by spring thaws coming off the Rocky Mountains. These days, 70 percent of these historic water levels have been removed or diverted for agriculture or stored behind dams before it can get to the Platte.
Restoring flows and sediment levels are among objectives of efforts designed to help the endangered piping plover, whooping crane and the interior least tern.
The multi-stakeholder effort aims to simulate the historic floods of the Platte by releasing some of the water that is stored behind three upstream dams for a period of three days in the spring. The increased flows are designed to control vegetation that can hinder the species and create sand bars.
The project will continue the higher flows for three more years before assessing its effectiveness.
— By Kurt Heine
An Unwanted Invader
One goal of the restoration program on the Platte is to re-create the sandy banks by clearing brush and bulldozing trees. But an invasive reed known as phragmites is making that work more difficult.
The aggressive reed grows to a height of 6 to 8 feet, and each plant puts out horizontal runners that can spread as fast as 1 foot per day.
Under the program, contractors spray, chop and disk the reed. Then water is released from upriver dams to help carry away the dead reeds and open up the sandy banks that are more suitable for the piping plover, least tern and whooping crane.
Removing the reeds and restoring the sandy banks of the Platte does not only benefit the threatened and endangered birds. Farmers who combat the invasive reed also benefit from the restoration efforts.
“When we’re done and you look at the river, there will be significant chunks looking how it used to,” Kenny said. “That is a good ecosystem for all the critters and people in the valley.”
— By Morgan Ledermann
On Sunday morning, we’re off to the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center to observe sandhill cranes and learn about their natural history. In the afternoon, we’ll head to the epicenter of the crane migration: Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary. At dusk, we’ll view the cranes from a blind as they return to the river after feeding in nearby fields.