The Platte River begins high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, then moves through the dry Great Plains of Colorado, Wyoming and Western Nebraska until it reaches the Missouri River at Plattsmouth, Nebraska. The North Platte and South Platte rivers join to form the Platte River near Ogallala.
Over most of its length through Nebraska, it is a muddy, broad, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom and many islands, which is called a braided stream. Its muddy water, many shallow channels and islands and ever-changing mud bars made it too difficult for even canoe travel; consequently, it was never used as a major water transportation route. During long, hot summers, the Platte River is an oasis for wildlife, including pronghorns, mule deer, jackrabbits and remnant populations of prairie dogs and burrowing owls.
Although the Platte River remains a unique wildlife resource, decades of development have dramatically changed the quality and quantity of its habitat. Pioneers described the Platte River as a mile wide and an inch deep. The river’s broad, barren channels once stretched for miles, giving migratory birds protection from predators. The Platte’s sandbars were an important nesting ground for shorebirds. Today, wells and surface water projects irrigate millions of acres of farmland. More than three million people in Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska get their drinking water largely from the Platte or nearby wells.
Despite the impact of development, the Platte continues to provide crucial habitat for a number of species of animals, including several that are threatened or endangered.
The shallow braided channels of Nebraska’s Platte River provide safe nighttime roost sites. Waste grain in crop fields provides food to build up depleted fat reserves needed for migration. Nearby wet meadows provide critical nutrients and secluded loafing areas for rest, bathing and courting.