View from a hilltop looking down over a vast grassland
North Platte River Ecosystems converge: pine forest and sagebrush plains © Chris Pague

Places We Protect

North Platte River Project

The Upper North Platte river provides a quintessential transition between Wyoming and Colorado.

The North Platte project harbors a number of globally rare and sensitive species, and important natural communities and ecological systems.


The North Platte project area provides a quintessential transition between Wyoming and Colorado. It is a place where foothills of sagebrush usher forests of aspen and fir, and finally snowy mountain peaks, where fast-moving cold rivers from the Rawahs and Zirkels give way and slow down, meandering through the plains of the North Platte Valley shaded by mature cottonwood forests, and where uncommon purple flowering herbs punctuate stark white sandstone outcrops. On the edge of wet and dry, high and low, the headwaters of the North Platte have some of the best of everything Colorado and Wyoming offer.

This area can truly be called an “intact working landscape.”  The project area includes the enormous floodplain of the North Platte River from vast wet meadows in North Park to extensive cottonwood riparian zones grading up onto foothills of the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre ranges in the North Platte Valley.  The rural communities of Walden, Cowdrey, Saratoga, and Encampment support ranching, mining, and tourism alongside blue-ribbon trout fisheries, heron rookeries and bald eagle nests on the North Platte River.  Above the river, five prominent mountain ranges provide habitat for numerous other species as diverse as bighorn sheep and boreal western toads.  The area is now seeing increasing pressure due to recreation and home-building, even as it faces the threats of continuing drought and epidemic forest insect activity.

Plants and Animals 
The North Platte project area harbors a number of globally rare and sensitive species, and important natural communities and ecological systems, including sand dunes, sage grouse, and colonial nesting water birds. The endangered locally-endemic North Park phacelia, a small violet flowering plant, resides on sandstone bluffs in Jackson County, Colorado. Gibben’s beardtongue, a rare perennial flowering herb, grows on shale and sandy slopes and exists only in a few other locations in Wyoming. Throughout the foothills of North Park and the North Platte Valley, an extensive intact sagebrush ecosystem provides habitat for the greater sage grouse. North Park is home to one of the two most viable populations remaining in Colorado. In the mountains, healthy communities of lodgepole pine, spruce-fir, and aspen forests, as well as abundant wetlands, provide habitat for species such as the pine marten, wood frog, and Emmel’s blue (a butterfly).

The North Platte River is free flowing in this area. Its tributaries support riparian wetlands and shrublands and provide superb habitat for populations of colonial nesting water birds, such as the black-crowned heron and western grebe. Wyoming’s second largest population of bald eagles nests here. In addition, the river system contains outstanding occurrences of several plant species, including the Rocky Mountain polypody, purple lady’s-slipper, and livid sedge.

Why the Conservancy Selected this Site 
The first conservation priority of the North Platte project area is the river and associated riparian areas.  A free-flowing section of a major river system is unique in the West. Wyoming's landscape is only 2.5 percent riparian and although Wyoming is an arid state and much of the site is arid land, its biotic diversity is strongly tied to water. At some time of the year an estimated 80 percent of native animals depend on riparian areas for food, water, shelter and migration.

In addition, the North Platte has historically been subject to the boom and bust cycles that characterize much of the West due to its land-based economy. Still today, agriculture, forestry, fishing/hunting, and mining compose the second largest sector of the economy behind government services.  These economic activities are an integral part of sustaining a healthy working landscape and appear to be compatible with maintaining biodiversity in the North Platte project area. However, a desire to own rural residential properties is fueling ranchette booms throughout the West and increasing residential water needs.

The states of Wyoming and Colorado are actively seeking sources of water to feed their growing urban areas. Trans-basin diversions are regularly proposed. Though perhaps not yet imminent, this threat is certainly building. On a localized scale, some riparian areas are in poor condition due to ditches and dikes, which disrupt the natural water regime. We propose to build local support to keep water in the basin and dedicate instream flows to protecting aquatic habitats, and restore wetlands for the benefits of human and natural communities. 

What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing 
In the face of the recent drought, long-time ranchers are looking for ways to keep their ranches profitable. One alternative is to sell home sites. With the coordinated efforts of the Conservancy and its partners, key landowners, and public and private fundraising, we can work to ensure that as large ranches are offered for sale, they remain intact. To reach this end we use several strategies, including conservation easements and the purchase and resale of biologically important properties to conservation buyers.

The Conservancy believes now is the time to launch a community-based program here. A community-based program would strengthen the Conservancy’s local presence and position us to partner in conservation with the local community, on which its protection ultimately depends.

The Conservancy’s successes include:

·         Unique cooperative project on the Medicine Bow National Forest to protect 280 acre wetland area consisting of small snowmelt "kettle" lakes and home to the wood frog (Rana sylvatica). The wood frogs in Colorado and Wyoming represent a disjunct portion of the total range over which the species occurs. Wood frogs are secure globally but imperiled in WY due to rarity or limited range and occurrences and are classified by the USFS as a sensitive species.

·         Completed 2 conservation buyer projects (Sheep Rock) protecting a total of 1,280 acres protecting bald eagle nesting habitat, river habitat, and allows the landowners to continue agricultural operations and keep the ranch intact.

·         Worked with the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association Land Trust to protect an important ranch and ensure that ranching continues.