Are whooping cranes destined for extinction?

Are whooping cranes destined for extinction? Climate change imperils recruitment and population growth

Matther J. Butler, Kristine L. Metzger, Grant M. Harris
First published:

Summary

Are whooping cranes destined for extinction?

Whooping Cranes on their wintering grounds at Aransas NWR. Photo courtesy of Kevin Sims

Identifying climatic drivers of an animal population’s vital rates and locating where they operate steers conservation efforts to optimize species recovery. The population growth of endangered whooping cranes (Grus americana) hinges on juvenile recruitment. Therefore, we identify climatic drivers (solar activity [sunspots] and weather) of whooping crane recruitment throughout the species’ life cycle (breeding, migration, wintering).

Method and Model

Our method uses a repeated cross-validated absolute shrinkage and selection operator approach to identify drivers of recruitment. We model effects of climate change on those drivers to predict whooping crane population growth given alternative scenarios of climate change and solar activity. Years with fewer sunspots indicated greater recruitment. Increased precipitation during autumn migration signified less recruitment. On the breeding grounds, fewer days below freezing during winter and more precipitation during breeding suggested less recruitment. We predicted whooping crane recruitment and population growth may fall below long-term averages during all solar cycles when atmospheric CO2 concentration increases, as expected, to 500 ppm by 2050. Species recovery during a typical solar cycle with 500 ppm may require eight times longer than conditions without climate change and the chance of population decline increases to 31%.

Future climate change threat

Are whooping cranes destined for extinction?

Whooping cranes on nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo by John D. McKinnon / ©Parks Canada / Wood Buffalo National Park

Although this whooping crane population is growing and may appear secure, long-term threats imposed by climate change and increased solar activity may jeopardize its persistence. Weather on the breeding grounds likely affects recruitment through hydrological processes and predation risk, whereas precipitation during autumn migration may influence juvenile mortality. Mitigating threats or abating climate change should occur within ≈30 years or this wild population of whooping cranes may begin declining.

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