• Start-up
  • Planning
  • Action
  • Evaluation
The Central Platte River in Nebraska provides critical habitat for wildlife in the region, including about half a million cranes during seasonal migration in the spring. Multiple partner organizations worked together at a June 2019 workshop to envision how sustainable agricultural practices and other climate adaptation strategies could improve habitat in a targeted area of the river valley. Staff from The Nature Conservancy, Crane Trust, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission developed this project idea, and therefore the management goals represent the overlapping priorities of these organizations.

Project Area

The Platte River at the Rowe Sanctuary. Photo: Nebraska Audubon
The Central Platte River in Nebraska was once a braided river more than a mile wide with interspersed sandbars. This river corridor, and the surrounding grasslands, wetlands, and riparian forests, provided extensive habitat for sandhill cranes and other wildlife. This landscape has been extensively altered through agricultural land conversion, fire suppression, flood control, elimination of bison, and other factors. The Central Platte River Valley still provides critical habitat for wildlife in the region, including about half a million cranes during seasonal migration in the spring. The group focused on a portion of the Central Platte River Valley located southwest of Grand Island, NE, running roughly 20 km long, bordered by Interstate 80 to the north and agricultural land to the south.

Management Goals

Sandhill cranes at Martins Reach WMA. Photo: Carlee Koehler

Staff from The Nature Conservancy, Crane Trust, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission worked together to develop this project idea, and therefore the management goals represent the overlapping priorities of these organizations. Broadly, the goals of this project are to improve wildlife habitat for sandhill cranes and other wildlife; promote habitat-compatible agricultural practices; and demonstrate benefits to farmers and ranchers in the area, such as increased cattle forage, greater crop yield, and reduced fertilizer and other input costs. Specific objectives included increasing meadow cover to greater than 30% and reduce woodland cover to less than 30% of the area within 800 meters of the river; to increase average river channel width to over 200m in the project area; to improve soil fertility in agricultural fields; and to convert 40% of the row crop fields in the project area to crane-friendly crops such as wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn. 

Climate Change Impacts

Group members considered a range of regional climate change trends and how these trends might impact riparian wildlife habitat and agricultural practices in the project area. Broadly, it appears that
Warmer winters leading to shifts in crane migration and overwintering patterns
Reduced ice jams that help maintain the river's open, wide-braided character
Increased pressures from insect pests and cool-season invasive plants.
More variable snowpack in the mountains and warmer winters leading to shifting timing of floods and scouring action.
More low-flow days in the summer leading to vegetation encroachment in the river channel

Adaptation Actions

Project participants used the Adaptation Workbook and the draft Wildlife Adaptation Menu to develop several adaptation actions for this project, including:

Area/Topic
Approach
Tactics
Agricultural Practices
Encourage no-till agriculture and cover crops in the Central Platte River watershed.
Promote “precision agriculture” techniques to reduce inputs of fuel, fertilizer, and water.
Replace conventional row crops with native meadow species or alternative crops that may provide a greater variety of food sources over a longer seasonal timeframe.
Conservation Practices
Identify suitable parcels of private land to protect under conservation easements. Emphasize areas that could be restored to native meadow cover with rest, re-seeding, and tree removal.
Create disturbances at suitable seasons to boost floristic quality and biodiversity in meadows, such as grazing in the winter and prescribed fire in the summer as opposed to spring.
Partnerships and Outreach
Establish wildlife-viewing stations and parking lots for tourists to view cranes and other wildlife. Work with local landowners to provide compensation for access.
Working with the US Bureau of Reclamation and other river stakeholders to manage for a more natural flow regime with high-flow periods as well as a minimum base flow.

Monitoring

The project team identified a few monitoring variables that might reveal the effectiveness of the proposed adaptation actions. It would be helpful to regularly monitor the acres of meadow and woodland in the project area to track progress toward landcover objectives, in addition to monitoring the acreage of wildlife-friendly agricultural practices being employed. It would also be important to monitor fuel and fertilizer consumption trends for farmers engaging in these practices to demonstrate a reduced input cost for precision agricultural methods. Monitoring the population of sandhill cranes as well as the arrival and departure dates would help track potential shifts in the migratory pattern and inform the timing of grazing and other actions.

Next Steps

This project will be updated as the project partners work on implementing their ideas in the Central Platte River Valley. The Nature Conservancy and other partners have developed a "Nebraska Soil Carbon Project" which has many of the same outcomes as identified by project team-members during the June 2019 Wildlife Adaptation Workshop. The Nebraska Soil Carbon Project will work to increase acres of no-till agriculture, cover crops, and crop rotation along and beyond the river valley. Learn more: https://www.nature.org/en-us/what-we-do/our-priorities/provide-food-and-water-sustainably/food-and-water-stories/nebraska-soil-health/. This demonstrates the alignment of climate adaptation ideas with existing objectives of TNC and other stakeholders.

Learn More

To learn more about this project, contact
Stephen
.

Keywords

Wildlife habitat

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