Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Platte River

Platte River

Each spring, the skies over Nebraska's Platte River fill with birdcalls. Ten million ducks and geese, half a million sandhill cranes, and many other birds--big and small--fly in to eat and rest during the long migration to their northern breeding grounds. This seasonal gathering of birds along the central Platte is one of the world's great wildlife spectacles.

Photo of a father and daughter kayaking on Lake Regina

The Platte River starts as two tributaries high in the Rocky Mountains, one of which flows down across Colorado (through the city of Denver), the other through Wyoming, to finally meet in Nebraska. In Nebraska, the river becomes wide and shallow, filled with sandbars that make excellent habitat for the many birds that live there or visit each year. Eventually the Platte empties into the Missouri River, which will meet up with the Mississippi. The Platte is one of many rivers that feed the mighty Mississippi.

People and the Platte River

The tributaries of the Platte River pass through all kinds of environments, some with virtually no people, such as Rocky Mountain wilderness and the high plains of Wyoming, and some with hundreds of thousands of people, such as Denver, Colorado. Platte River wells and surface water projects irrigate millions of acres of farm land and more than three million people get their drinking water largely from the Platte or nearby wells. Millions of dollars are spent each year by birdwatchers who come to witness the wonder of the spring migration in Nebraska and by river rafters and kayakers enjoying its spring flows in Colorado and Wyoming.

Wildlife in the Central Platte River Region

Male Cranes posturing

The central Platte River in Nebraska is a critical nesting site or a stopover point for birds migrating through the Central Flyway on route to their summer breeding grounds, some as far north as northern Canada and the Arctic. Over 300 bird species have been observed there and 140 bird species nest there.

  • 500,000 sandhill cranes, as well as small numbers of the endangered whooping crane, pass through the central Platte region during their migration. They prefer the river's shallow waters and open sandbars as places to rest free of predators. They find food in the river's wet meadows and surrounding farmland.
  • The endangered interior least tern and the threatened piping plover nest on the Platte's sandbars.
  • Millions of geese and ducks, such as common mergansers, mallards, pintails and snow geese, also migrate through the region.

Other wildlife found in the central Platte River valley, include bald eagles, mule deer, pronghorn, prairie dogs, burrowing owls and jackrabbits.

Threats to the Platte River

Dams and Water Diversions

From the time the first settlers moved to the prairie surrounding the Platte, people have been altering it in some way--draining its wetlands and altering its flows with wells, dams and surface water projects throughout Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. Now that agriculture has replaced much of the prairie, and big cities have sprung up along Colorado's Front Range, there are many demands on the waters of the Platte. People hold valuable water rights that give them legal access to the Platte River's water, and the use or removal of water from the river adversely affects wildlife and the riparian corridor. In addition, much of the Platte's water is lost to evaporation as it passes through arid country. There does not seem to be enough water to go around.

Today, as the North and South Platte flow down from the Rockies, their waters are diverted to dams, reservoirs and other water control structures. The water is managed for irrigation, water supply, flood control, electric power generation and even recreation (kayaking and rafting).

As a result, water flows in the central Platte have fallen dramatically and the river has shrunk to a fraction of its historic width. Reduced water flows have changed the river's surrounding vegetation. Sandbars on the Platte River typically had very little plant life, because the plants got scoured away by spring floods. Dams and water diversions are decreasing flood disturbances and giving trees and shrubs the room to grow. The consequence is that roosting birds like plovers and sandhill cranes are loosing their historic habitat on sandbars.

Prairie Potholes

Prairie Potholes

Sweeping across five Midwestern states and four Canadian provinces, North America's prairie potholes are an important habitat and natural resource of the Great Plains grasslands.

American Black duck

As ancient glaciers retreated over 10,000 years ago, millions of shallow depressions were left in the earth. These round (like a 'pot') depressions often fill with snowmelt and water in the spring, especially in wetter years, creating valuable seasonal wetlands that support rich plant and animal life.

Many millions of ducks and other waterfowl come to the prairie pothole region every year to feed and breed.

Importance of Prairie Potholes to People

Prairie potholes are important natural resources for people as well as waterfowl. They provide valuable, but often under-appreciated, ecosystem services that help people commercially, ecologically and economically.

  • They serve as natural sponges that hold excess water that helps reduce the severity and risk of downstream flooding.
  • They recharge groundwater systems that supply water to farmlands and wells in the region.
  • The potholes also provide water and forage for livestock.
  • Birders, as well as hunters, use the prairie potholes region as a destination for finding birds.

White Pelican flying

Wildlife in the Prairie Potholes

The 64 million acres of the prairie potholes that are in the United States have 18 species of waterfowl, 96 species of songbirds, 36 species of waterbirds, 17 species of raptors and 5 species of upland game birds.

Waterfowl: The prairie pothole region is home to more than 50 percent of North American migratory waterfowl. Waterfowl breeding here include pintail, gadwall, blue-winged teal, shoveler, canvasback and redhead. Many other migratory birds--such as the snow goose, lesser scaup and wigeon--pass through the region on their way to or from the Arctic and other northern breeding grounds.

Grassland birds: Many grassland birds are also found in the region, such as the bobolink, sedge wren, Sprague's pipit, Baird's sparrow, and the increasingly rare grasshopper sparrow.

Waterbirds: The U.S. part of the potholes region provides habitat for 40 species of breeding waterbirds, such as American white pelicans, rails, and herons.

Shorebirds: The piping plover, American avocet and Wilson's phalarope are among the shorebirds that breed in the prairie potholes region. Other shorebirds such as the hudsonian godwit, American golden-Plover, white-rumped sandpiper and buff-breasted sandpiper pass through the potholes during their migration.

Threats to the Prairie Potholes

Agricultural Development

The Great Plains are known as America's breadbasket. But before the farmers arrived, the Great Plains were the most extensive grassland in the world, with about 100,000 acres of prairie pothole wetlands. Today, only a small fraction of the grasslands remain, in small, disconnected fragments and only 50 percent of the prairie pothole wetlands still exist. The wetlands that remain are surrounded by agricultural lands and impacted by agricultural chemicals and excess sediments and nutrients that run off agricultural lands and into the potholes.

Conserving the remaining prairie potholes is important not only to maintain waterfowl populations, but also to improve both surface and groundwater availability for agricultural purposes, including grazing and crop irrigation.

For many years, ranchers and farmers have been given incentives through programs such as the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to set aside lands for conservation and to adopt new management practices that reduce their impacts on natural areas. However, in recent years, high prices have encouraged farmers to return CRP lands to agricultural use, such as growing crops for biofuels, putting the prairie potholes at increased risk.

Great Lakes

Great Lakes

The Great Lakes--Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario--form the largest surface freshwater system in the world. Together, they hold nearly one-fifth of the earth's surface freshwater. The Great Lakes have over 10,000 miles of shoreline and serve as a drain more than 200,000 square miles of land ranging from forested areas to agricultural lands, cities and suburbs.

Gray Wolf

The Great Lakes watershed includes some of North America's more fascinating wildlife such as the gray wolf, Canada lynx, moose and bald eagle. The lakes themselves are home to numerous fish, including lake whitefish, walleye, muskellunge and trout. Millions of migratory birds pass through the region during their spring and fall migrations.

People Depend on the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes region has been home to Native Americans for nearly 10,000 years. The first Europeans arrived in the 1600s and began to utilize the region for animal furs. It wasn't long before more settlers were drawn to the region seeking farmland.

Today, over 35 million people live in the Great Lakes basin in Canada and the United States. The Great Lakes are important sources of drinking water, irrigation, transportation and recreation opportunities such as fishing, hunting, boating, and wildlife watching. The Great Lakes are a critical component of the regional economy on both sides of the border.

Wildlife in the Great Lakes

The land surrounding the Great Lakes was once dominated by forests and grasslands interspersed with wetlands. Many of the wildlife that still call the region home exist in the remnants of those habitats, such as the gray wolf, moose, beaver and many bird species. The Great Lakes region is important for many species of migratory and resident birds, particularly waterfowl, birds that nest in colonies, and neotropical migrants.

  • Fish: The Great Lakes are actually quite different from each other. Lake Superior, the largest of the lakes, is cold and deep. Lake Erie is one of the smallest of the Great Lakes and is relatively shallow and warm. Because of this variation, different numbers and varieties of fish and other aquatic wildlife can be found in each lake. Walleye, yellow perch, lake sturgeon, brook trout, lake whitefish, muskellunge, and introduced salmon species are among the many kinds of fish in the Great Lakes. Some fish are undergoing restoration efforts, such as lake sturgeon and lake trout.

  • Mammals: Many mammals, large and small, live in the Great Lakes region, including the gray wolf, Canada lynx, little brown bat, beaver, moose, river otter, and coyote.

    Moose and her calf

  • Birds: The Great Lakes region provides important breeding, feeding, and resting areas for many birds including the bald eagle, northern harrier, common loon, double-crested cormorant, common tern, bobolink, least bittern, common merganser, and the endangered Kirtland's warbler.

Threats to the Great Lakes


Despite their great size, the Great Lakes are actually very vulnerable to pollution. The amount of water entering and leaving the lakes each year is less than one percent of the total in the lakes. Persistent chemicals that enter the lakes can remain for many years, with many building up in the food web. The source of toxic pollutants includes decades of industrial waste, raw sewage overflows, runoff from cities, and mining operations. Excess nutrients that throw the ecosystem out of balance enter the lakes from agricultural runoff and untreated sewage.

Global Warming

The impacts of global warming are already being observed in the Great Lakes. Increasing air and water temperatures mean increased evaporation from the lakes, declining lake levels and worsened water quality. The Great Lakes are already highly stressed, and climate change will worsen existing threats to the Great Lakes, including making the lakes more suitable for invasive species, drying coastal wetlands that filter pollution, exposing toxic sediment pollution, and increasing the number of intense storms leading to sewage overflows.

For information on the Great Lakes and Global Warming see the fact sheet"Overview of Recent Research: Effects of Global Warming on the Great Lakes" or the report "Great Lakes Restoration and the Threat of Global Warming"

Invasive Species

Invasive species have significantly changed the Great Lakes by competing with native species for food and habitat. They foul beaches, harm fisheries, clog water infrastructure and lead to the regional extinction of species. More than 180 non-native species have entered the Great Lakes, and a new species is discovered every 28 weeks on average.

Coastal Louisiana

Coastal Louisiana

Beaver Dam, Louisiana

About 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states are found in Louisiana. These millions of acres of wetlands were built over thousands of years by Mississippi River floodwaters that deposited huge amounts of sediment at the river's delta.

Today, these wetlands range from interior forested wetlands to barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico and a wide array of interconnected habitats, including freshwater, brackish and salt marshes that are home to millions of birds and other wildlife.

People Depend on the Louisiana Coast

Almost half of the population of Louisiana lives near the coast, including in the city of New Orleans. The coast's unique culture is made up of people whose way of life is tied to the bayous, including Acadians (Cajuns), American Indians and other peoples who have settled there from all over the world.

Much of Louisiana's Economy is Tied to its Coast and Wetlands:

  • Louisiana has extremely productive commercial fisheries.
  • The wetlands and wildlife draw birders, hunters, anglers, boaters and other outdoor enthusiasts.
  • The navigable waterways, including the Mississippi River, support shipping and transit.
  • The offshore oil fields and refineries provide numerous jobs.

The wetlands that make up most of coastal Louisiana are an extremely valuable resource that provides critical services to people, called ecosystem services. They not only provide seafood and wildlife for us to enjoy, but also improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients, replenishing aquifers, providing erosion control and helping to dissipate storm surges.

Man with fish he caught

Wildlife in Coastal Louisiana

The Louisiana coast has a diversity of habitats--from uplands to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and everything in-between, including wet forests with cypress trees, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh salt marsh and sandy beaches. These habitats provide homes for an abundance of migratory and year-round wildlife.

  • Endangered species: Coastal Louisiana has a number of federally endangered or threatened animals, such as the Louisiana black bear, piping plover and green sea turtle, that struggle to survive in the remaining coastal habitat.
  • Plants: The Louisiana coast has many plants that live only in wetlands and that provide habitat for wetland wildlife. Some of these plants are cattails, swamp rose, spider lilies, and cypress trees.
  • Fish and shellfish: Estuaries and wetlands are nurseries for young fish and shellfish.
  • Migratory Birds: The Louisiana coast is where the Central and Mississippi flyways meet. It provides a place for Neotropical migratory songbirds to rest and feed before or after crossing the Gulf of Mexico, and it is a winter home to 70 percent of the waterfowl that migrate along these flyways, such as the gadwall, green-winged teal, northern shoveler, and snow goose.
  • Reptiles: The American alligator is a well-known resident of the Louisiana coast.

Threats to Coastal Louisiana

Alligator with its mouth open

Wetland Loss

At one time there were extensive wetlands around New Orleans and other coastal communities that provided a natural resilience to storms. In total, about fifty miles of marshland once protected New Orleans from the Gulf with trees and marsh grasses that blocked the winds and blunted storm surges. Today, coastal Louisiana is losing 24 square miles of wetlands each year--roughly equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes. Louisiana has already lost an area of coastal land equal to the size of the state of Delaware! If this rate of wetland loss is not slowed, by the year 2040 the Louisiana shoreline will advance inland as much as 33 miles in some areas.

Wetland loss occurs because of natural causes--subsidence and wave erosion--and human causes.

How Do People Cause Wetland Loss?

  • Construction of river levees, channels, canals and dams that regulate water flows or make it easier for ships to pass through an area.
  • Draining wetlands for agriculture or urban development

Human activities disrupt the natural balance of Louisiana wetlands. Prior to human development, natural wetland loss was replenished by Mississippi River sediments and nutrients creating new wetlands. Human activities have the unfortunate side-effect of causing Mississippi River sediments to go straight down the river's channel and into the Gulf of Mexico. Not only are we destroying wetlands, but we are disrupting the natural cycle that rebuilds them.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the lessons learned is that a healthy system of wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf almost certainly would have slowed down the storm and dampened the storm surge. Without natural storm buffers, breaches in levees such as those after Hurricane Katrina could become an even bigger threat. Wetlands serve as nature's first line of defense--by absorbing much of damage caused by hurricanes.



Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is America's first National Park. Located in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, it is home to a large variety of wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, bison, and elk.

Yellowstone is sitting on a large volcanic field that, millions of years ago, had some of the world's largest known eruptions. That legacy makes it the site of the Earth's largest concentration of geysers, including Old Faithful, and some of the world's most extraordinary hot springs.

yellowstone hotspring

People and Yellowstone

People and Yellowstone have a long history. Native American peoples began using Yellowstone as a home or hunting ground around 11,000 years ago. In 1872, when the United States was still a young country, Yellowstone became its first National Park. It is now internationally recognized as one of the world's most magnificent parks. People from all over the world come to enjoy its natural wonders and wildlife.

The Importance of Fire

Yellowstone is an ecosystem adapted to wildfires. Many of its plants have adaptations that help them survive fires, such as having roots that live even if the top of the plant is burnt. Some plants actually need fire to reproduce. Lodgepole pines need fire to burn off the resin that keeps their pinecones closed until fire opens up new spaces in which the pine seedlings can grow.

Wildlife in Yellowstone

Yellowstone is best known for its mammals, including the bison, grizzly bears, gray wolf, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain goat and mountain lion. The park actually has the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, with 67 different mammal species.

Yellowstone encompasses many different kinds of wildlife habitat, including:

  • Alpine tundra: Dry, rocky, and treeless areas near the tops of mountains. Alpine tundra has low growing plants and a few mammals, such as mountain goats and pika.
  • Mountain meadows: Lush, spongy oases of sedges, wildflowers and shrubs at elevations from about 6,000 to above 11,000 feet. They range from small glades to grasslands of thousands of acres. Because of heavy winter snows, mountain meadows often remain moist throughout the year. Elk, pronghorns and mule deer frequent these habitats.
  • Sage-steppe Grasslands: Treeless areas of grasses, shrubs and herbaceous plants such as wildflowers, with low moisture and seasonal extremes in temperature, in which bison can be found.

Threats to Yellowstone

Boundary Conflicts

When Yellowstone National Park was first established in 1872, the aim was to preserve the geysers and hot springs, not necessarily to protect wide-ranging wildlife that were not well understood at the time. For the big animals that live in Yellowstone National Park today--such as grizzly bear, elk and wolves--it's not clear where the park's boundaries start and stop. Many of these species require wide ranges or migration corridors to get to their breeding sites. The result: wildlife migrates outside of the park boundaries into unprotected areas. The area around Yellowstone is a frequent site of conflict between wildlife and people.

The National Wildlife Federation has a goal of reducing wildlife conflicts in the Yellowstone region. Learn about NWF's Wildlife Conflict Resolution work.

Red Desert

Red Desert

The Red Desert of southern Wyoming is one of the last high-desert ecosystems in North America. Its varied landscape of buttes, dunes, sagebrush steppe, mountains and rocky pinnacles is home to some of the continents most hidden treasures:

  • The largest living dune system in the United States
  • The largest migratory herd of pronghorn in the lower 48 states
  • The world's largest herd of desert elk
  • And, at its heart, the Great Divide Basin--a large depression along the Continental Divide from which surface water does not flow out to either the Atlantic or the Pacific.

People and the Red Desert

Long before European settlers arrived, the region played a significant role in the lives of Native Americans, including the Shoshone and Ute tribes. Rock art from the region dates back over 11,000 years. The Red Desert's unique features helped guide hundreds of thousands of pioneers on the Oregon Trail towards their destinations in Oregon, California and Washington. In some places, you can still see their tracks. Riders for the Pony Express and the United States' first transcontinental railroad passed through the Red Desert. Today, Interstate 80 bisects the region.

In the Red Desert, people can enjoy bird and wildlife watching, hiking and camping, horseback riding, mountain biking, pronghorn and elk hunting, and a remarkable complex of active sand dunes to visit. Cattle and sheep graze on its rangelands. It is also a source of natural resources, including oil, natural gas, coal, coalbed methane and minerals including uranium.

Wildlife in the Red Desert

The Red Desert is home to 350 species of wildlife and many more plant species that have adapted to its harsh conditions. The world's largest herd of desert elk, 50,000 pronghorn antelope, and rare plant and bird species can all be found there. Most of the Red Desert is actually sagebrush steppe--habitat for pronghorn, elk and pygmy rabbit. It also has aspen and conifer-covered mountains, rivers and springs. Its dune regions actually help to store snowmelt with temporary ponds, providing habitat for swans, ducks, plovers, and even tiny freshwater shrimp.

  • Birds: Many species of birds, including raptors, waterbirds and shorebirds can be found in the Red Desert at different times of the year. Interesting Red Desert birds include the rare mountain plover, greater sage grouse, burrowing owl, white-faced ibis, golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, Brewer's sparrow, sage sparrow, and sage thrasher.
  • Mammals: The Red Desert is home to many species of mammals, large and small, both predator and prey, including Wyoming's only population of the endangered black-footed ferret, desert elk,pronghorn, pygmy rabbit, mountain lion, mule deer, white-footed mice, wild horses, coyote, badger, and the white-tailed prairie dog.

Threats to the Red Desert

Energy Development

Wyoming is rich in natural resources, including coal, oil, natural gas, coalbed methane, and minerals, including uranium--all of which may potentially be found in the Red Desert. The majority of the Red Desert has no legal protection, and is therefore open to oil and gas exploration and development, along with the accompanying roads, pipelines, fences, truck traffic and utility lines. There is also renewed interest in mining for uranium, with all of its potential radioactive hazards. The construction and resource extraction fragments wildlife habitats and disrupts elk, pronghorn and mule deer migration, as well as scarring the landscape and polluting the air and water.


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