Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 17, 2014

Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update, December 17, 2014

Aransas NWR biologist Diana Iriarte and Migratory Birds Program pilot biologist Terry Liddick preparing for the first whooping crane survey of the season

We successfully completed our annual whooping crane abundance survey last week, flying surveys on a record six consecutive days, beginning on Monday, December 8 and ending this past Saturday, December 13, 2014. Rarely do we get that many consecutive days of suitable weather for surveys, so we feel extremely fortunate that we were able to complete the 6 survey flights that our whooping crane  abundance survey protocol requires. Once again, Terry Liddick, pilot/biologist from our migratory birds program, served as pilot, flying a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cessna 206. Observers were Wade Harrell, Beau Hardegree (Coastal Program biologist, Corpus Christi FWS office) and Diana Iriarte (Aransas NWR biologist).

Data management and analysis once the actual survey is complete is a significant effort conducted by multiple staff members, so we won’t have the final results to present for a few months. But, I will share some general post-survey observations:

  • We consistently observed whooping cranes using every unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (Blackjack, Matagorda, Tatton, Lamar and Myrtle-Foester Whitmire).
  • We observed larger than average group sizes (>8) of whooping cranes in several of our primary survey blocks, with these groups consistently observed in the Blackjack and Welder Flats primary survey blocks. These large groups often contained more than 1 family group.
  • We consistently observed 3 family groups that included 2 juveniles (i.e. commonly referred to as “twins”).
  • One pair of whooping cranes was consistently detected from each of 3 of our secondary survey areas (Holiday Beach, Powderhorn Lake (Myrtle-Foester Whitmire Unit) and Matagorda Island North)
  • We detected whooping crane pairs both further south on San Jose Island (southern portion of primary survey area) and Matagorda Island (northern portion of primary survey area) than in the past few years.
  • While coastal salt marsh was the most common habitat type that we observed whooping cranes using during the survey, we observed whooping cranes using a wide variety of other habitat types as well including freshwater wetlands, upland prairies and shrublands and open-water bay edges.
  • Overall, habitat appeared to be in better condition than the past few years. We observed a significant amount of freshwater and green, lush vegetation in upland areas.

Several of the observations noted from last week’s survey point to an expanding whooping crane population that is exhibiting a wider range of behaviors than we have observed in the past. This “change” is to be expected as larger populations tend to have greater genetic and behavioral variability than smaller populations do. This wider range of behavior is a positive step in the long road to recovery for this endangered species, as larger populations with more behavioral and genetic variation tend to be more resilient to environmental changes than small populations. While the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population is still relatively small (about 300), it has roughly tripled in size over the last 30 years.

This year we were also able to capture some survey video footage with GoPro cameras mounted to the outside of the plane. These are wide-angle cameras that we are hoping will help us continually improve our survey methods as well as have some video of annual changes in habitat. Over the next few weeks, we will be sorting through some of the survey video and will work to share some clips in future updates.

I want to note that the annual whooping crane abundance survey is a collective effort, with the pilot and observers in the plane only serving one small role within the overall survey. I want to personally thank Greg Birkenfeld, acting Aransas NWR project leader, for serving as overall manager of the effort, Diana Iriarte, Aransas NWR biologist, for serving as our go-to data collection technology and data management specialist, Susie Perez and Josie Farias, administrative staff at Aransas NWR, for assisting with logistics and Grant Harris and Matthew Butler from our Refuge Regional Office Inventory & Monitoring Team for survey protocol development and data analysis.

We will be flying some additional training surveys in early January in order to get 2-3 new observers up to speed and ready to start collecting data for next year’s survey.

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR:

Unfortunately, weather conditions haven’t allowed us to conduct any planned prescribed burns on the Refuge yet, but our fire crew continues to look for the right weather window. We have plans in place to implement prescribed burns on both the Blackjack Unit and Matagorda Unit of Aransas NWR this winter.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR:

November precipitation: 4.38” @ Aransas HQ

December precipitation (as of 12/16): 0.68” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 28 ppt

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Killing the Bays That Produce Coastal Gold

**** Editor’s note: Attorney, Jim Blackburn has shared his “Coastal Update 2014” with Friends of the Wild Whoopers. Jim’s update contains so many great perspectives and ideas that we want to share them with you. This year he remains focused upon the future of Texas bays and estuaries and the challenges that he sees for them and for those of us who enjoy using them.

Jim rationalizes: “With regard to water, our reliance on the ways of the past has led to problems that will repeat and worsen unless we change. Change takes leadership. Change takes guts. It is up to those of us who love the coast to insist that these changes begin. And no place is better than this upcoming session of the Texas legislature. Make sure and write to your local representatives and state senator, as well as to our new Governor elect, the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House and let them know that you want them to protect the bays.” ****

Killing the Bays That Produce Coastal Gold – by Jim Blackburn

Friends of the Wild Whoopers Whooping crane winter habitat on Aransas NWR, Texas  photo by USFWS

Whooping crane winter habitat on Aransas NWR, Texas photo by USFWS

If we Texans don’t change our approach to water policy and freshwater inflows for the bays and estuaries of the Texas coast, we are going to lose the estuaries that many of us know and love. Currently, Texas water policies have ecologically “killed” Nueces Bay according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Federal District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi ruled in 2013 that Texas water withdrawal permits impacted San Antonio Bay so substantially that crab production declined and 23 whooping cranes died. Recently, the Houston Chronicle reported that Galveston Bay was showing signs of ecological harm from reduced freshwater inflows. And Matagorda Bay is under attack by the water users living adjacent to or near the Highland Lakes.

I have been talking about and litigating this issue for many years, and I have trouble understanding the number of people that I encounter who are surprised to learn that we are killing our bays. Either there is an assumption out there that existing institutions are appropriately addressing this problem or the assumption is that there is no problem and all is well with our bays. Let me assure you. Neither conclusion is correct.

One of my biggest concerns is that many of us are afraid to “rock the boat” by speaking up about the bays. Nowhere could this be clearer than in voting and support for political candidates. Frankly, although it seems not to be the case, Republicans can support environmental issues. The question is – why don’t our Republican voters demand coastal protection from our Republican state and federal elected representatives? So far they have not and we are not getting protection from our elected officials (except in Aransas County where they have been leaders in coastal stewardship).

There are many ways to combine conservative or “red state” political beliefs and coastal protection, but they require effort and creativity. Much of the research I have been undertaking at SSPEED Center at Rice University has been focused upon finding methods to combine “red state” values with long term conservation goals. And as will be explained later in this write-up, there are emerging solutions that combine ecological protection with creative market solutions that basically require no new regulation. It can be done, but it does involve doing things differently than in the past and that involves change. Without change, we are doomed to replicate our past failures.

My favorite statement by Alfred Einstein is “the world that we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems that cannot be solved by thinking the way we were thinking when we created them”. To which I add “Hallelujah brother”. We have to think differently. We have to be open. We have to let science speak to us. We have to listen. And we have to act.

Fresh water is a key to the future of the coast. Our bays must have freshwater inflows. So far, our water permitting system has failed to respond to this need, even though we have known about it for well over fifty years. We have issued more surface water permits than there is dependable water in every major river system except for perhaps the Sabine-Neches. Our climate is changing. Evaporation will increase in the future. Base flow will decline substantially during drought years which will become more frequent. So – without even setting aside water for the bays and estuaries, we need to face the fact that our surface water allocation system is and will continue to be a failure. Reliance upon it in the future will not only jeopardize our bays but our economy as well.

As is explained in the articles that I link to below, we are not paying the “full cost” of surface water in Texas today. As we starve our bays for water, we are killing oysters, shrimp, crabs and smaller finfish like menhaden and mullet that support redfish, speckled trout and flounder. There is a cost for each gallon of water that does not reach our bays, yet we have never recognized or computed that cost. Some work I have done on San Antonio Bay indicates a minimum damage of $4 per thousand gallons for water removed from the bay. If this cost is added to the cost for building a reservoir and/or a conveyance and treatment system, the cost of surface water becomes higher than brackish desalination. If we charged correctly for our surface water – which is owned by the State – we would shift the direction of future water supplies toward desalination, a move that would – over time – protect our bays.

Charging for the state’s water is a break-through concept that is consistent with market economics and market thinking. People seem to understand money. Corporations are comfortable talking about money and prices. And I guarantee you I can keep the attention of any audience in Houston if I talk about environmental protection and money. The price of water can lead us to protect our bays IF we are willing to set the price correctly.

With regard to water, our reliance on the ways of the past has led to problems that will repeat and worsen unless we change. Change takes leadership. Change takes guts. It is up to those of us who love the coast to insist that these changes begin. And no place is better than this upcoming session of the Texas legislature. Make sure and write to your local representatives and state senator, as well as to our new Governor elect, the Lt. Governor and the Speaker of the House and let them know that you want them to protect the bays.

Note: a guest editorial, “Our Bays and coast are under threat, I wrote about coastal productivity was published by the Houston Chronicle on November 30, 2014. This editorial was excerpted from a much longer article I wrote for the Baker Institute at Rice titled “The Texas Coast: Freshwater Inflow, Coastal Productivity, and Texas Water Policy”.

 ***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****
Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

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