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Platte River Ecosystem Resources and Management, with Emphasis on the Big Bend Reach in Nebraska


When the first Caucasian explorers reached the Platte River in the early 19th century, they found a pristine environment occupied by Native Americans along with vast herds of ungulates and flocks of birds. Townsend (1839) and Fremont (1845), the first major explorers in the region, kept records of the natural features of the Platte River valley in an attempt to identify the wealth of natural resources there. Most wildlife species associated with the Platte River occurred in tremendous numbers at that time (Currier et al. 1985).

Lured by the gold and other valuable resources farther west, explorers moved rapidly through the valley. A series of trails soon developed as additional travelers pushed westward. From the modest beginnings of wagon trains, cattle grazing, and military forts, the Platte River valley developed rapidly into a major agricultural and livestock-producing region. Communities were established to provide support services for farming and ranching activities.

A transportation network was essential to development of the area. Until the Union Pacific Railroad was completed through central Nebraska in 1866, there was no effective way to transport agricultural goods to market. The federal government encouraged development of the Union Pacific and other railroads by granting lands along the rights-of-way to the railroad companies. The railroads then generated money by selling these lands to settlers. Railroads subsidized the immigration of European settlers to the region with low fares and low land prices. This effort, along with the offer of free land through various amendments of the Homestead Act, promoted settlement of central Nebraska.

Concomitant with the great influx of settlers and resultant development of the agricultural community, extensive and mostly permanent changes occurred in the character of the Platte River valley landscape. The vast area of tall grass prairie was reduced to areas too wet to plow. Agricultural irrigation development and reservoir construction facilitated the dramatic reduction in peak and annual flows in the Platte River (Figure 1 and Figure 2), ultimately and permanently changing much of the habitat from sandbar and wet meadow to riparian forest. Shelterbelts, established to reduce the force of the prairie winds on tilled lands, provided a new habitat for terrestrial wildlife species to exploit. Shelterbelts also served as a source of exotic tree species introductions into riparian zones. The result of the advance of man across the Platte River system was irreparable alteration of the habitats and wildlife that once flourished here.

The principal objective of this report is to describe the current condition of wildlife and fish species and their habitats in the Platte River system, especially the central Platte River in Nebraska. A secondary objective is to present a synthesis of habitat changes on these same species. The third objective is to present recommendations on the direction to follow in future habitat management. We also present a cursory description of the fish and wildlife resources.

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