A High-wire Act to Protect Whooping Cranes from Powerlines

by Rebecca Heisman | March 04, 2019

This story was originally published in the Winter 2018-2019 edition of American Bird Conservancy‘s Bird Conservation Magazine.

Kansas power companies join forces to prevent crane powerline collisions

The Whooping Crane is a bird of distinction. North America’s tallest bird and one of its most endangered species, this gleaming-white, 15-pound wetland denizen almost became as mythical as the now-extinct Passenger Pigeon. In the early 1940s, only 15 remained.

Thanks to years of hard-fought conservation gains, the one remaining self-sustaining migratory Whooping Crane flock now numbers more than 500 individuals. Every year, they fly from breeding grounds in Canada’s remote Wood Buffalo National Park to winter on the Texas coast, before heading back north again.

This annual journey of 2,500 miles each way takes the birds through the heartland of North America. There, they rely on wetlands in the Great Plains to rest and refuel. Over the years, two key areas in Kansas — Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and a collection of preserves known as Cheyenne Bottoms — have provided safe haven for Whooping Cranes passing through the state.

The Peril of Powerlines
Whooping Crane. Photo by USFWS

Migration can be an especially vulnerable time, as travel-weary birds set down in relatively unfamiliar places. In the past, hunters were a major problem. Occasionally, a protected crane is still shot by accident or intentionally, but these days, a far more pervasive danger looms large over the flat landscapes these birds navigate: powerlines.

The Peril of Powerlines

Especially in the poor visibility of dawn, dusk, or fog, birds frequently collide with them. Each year in the United States, as many as 25 million birds die after colliding with powerlines. And a 2008 report by researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Texas State University found that powerline collisions are the number-one known cause of mortality for recently fledged migratory Whooping Cranes.

Fortunately, since the 1980s, a group of forward-looking power company representatives called the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC) has been developing methods to reduce both collisions and electrocutions of birds. The challenge is to try to keep run-ins between cranes and lines to an absolute minimum.

Kansas utilities are now working with conservationists to ensure a brighter future for Whooping Cranes and other birds. Nearing completion, their efforts to make powerlines more crane-friendly provide a heartening example of how the private, public, and nonprofit sectors can come together to do good for birds.

whooping crane powerline collisions
Whooping Crane family. Photo by Richard Seeley/Shutterstock

Working to Safeguard Weary Whoopers

In 2010, the USFWS issued guidance for how power companies in the region should address the risk of Whooping Crane collisions with powerlines. Ideally, the guidance document advised, new lines constructed within the cranes’ migratory corridor should be buried underground. In many cases, however, burying lines isn’t feasible, so the USFWS also proposed an alternative: Utilities could opt to “mark” their lines, outfitting them with devices to make them more visible to birds in flight.

Many of Kansas’ power companies are small co-ops. Eric Johnson of Westar Energy, one of the state’s larger utilities, describes a typical outfit as “maybe one executive director and a crew of five linemen.” Lacking on-staff biologists and other resources, small companies would have had trouble implementing the new USFWS recommendations on their own.

The solution? Kansas’ electrical utilities formed a flock. The first step was simply identifying which lines were the highest priority for marking — that is, which ones most likely hung in the path of travel-weary cranes.

“Most people look at a map of the lower 48 states and they see an arrow where a migration corridor is, and then they see powerlines cutting across that, and they get worried,” says Anne Lacy, a researcher with the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation. “But it’s okay if a bird is flying 2 miles above that powerline — that’s perfectly safe. But those stopover areas are really critical. The cranes are in an unknown place, they’re tired because they’ve just flown several hundred miles, and they maybe aren’t as aware of their surroundings. They’re coming in low, it might be evening when there’s low light, and that’s where it’s critical to either not have those powerlines at all, or if they are there, to have them marked.”

Power Companies and Birdwatchers Unite

Starting within a 5-mile radius around Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms, the Kansas utilities worked with environmental consultants on an assessment that considered factors such as lines’ proximity to crane roosting and feeding sites. The USFWS guidance instructed that when new lines were installed in sensitive areas, not only should new lines be marked — additional stretches of line elsewhere should be marked as well, with this additional step aimed at further offsetting the risks posed by new construction.

Small companies may not own additional lines in high-priority areas, however, so the utilities pooled their resources, each contributing money to a fund held by a nonprofit to be used by whomever did have high-priority lines to mark. An advisory group including representatives from nonprofits such as The Nature Conservancy and the Kansas Ornithological Society, government agencies, and power companies was formed to provide additional guidance for the project.

“It’s been encouraging to see everybody come together for one very specific purpose,” says the Kansas Ornithological Society’s Chuck Otte, who was an early recruit to the advisory group. “The representatives from the power companies, they’re learning about how birds behave and about our concerns as birdwatchers. And as a birdwatcher, I’ve learned more about different kinds of insulators and powerlines than I ever thought possible. All of that stuff has been absolutely fascinating to me.”

Whooping Cranes. Photo by Al Perry

Making the Lines Easier to See

“There are a lot of different line-marking products out there on the market,” says Westar’s Eric Johnson. “Some of them have had scientific studies done on how effective they are, others haven’t, but when it comes down to it, anything that makes the line more noticeable or larger in diameter will do something for birds.

“Some of them are just a spiral of pre-formed plastic that wraps around the line and makes it more obvious, and then there are others that are a little more active,” Johnson continues. “You can clip them on the line and they spin with the wind.”

Some of these devices can be installed from the ground, but on the largest cross-country lines the work needs to be done from above via helicopter. In these cases, a highly trained lineman sits outside the helicopter while it hovers alongside the line, then reaches out and clips on the device by hand.

Protecting More than Cranes

The work began in 2015. So far, 160 miles of the identified high-priority lines have been marked in and around the two protected areas. According to Johnson, all 113 miles of high-priority lines at Cheyenne Bottoms will be completed by the end of 2019, as well as 90 miles of the total of 130 at Quivira.

Otte acknowledges that it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of Whooping Crane collisions with powerlines, but he says the work makes a difference. “These are things that aren’t just going to protect Whooping Cranes, they’re going to protect Sandhill Cranes, they’re going to protect ducks and geese, they’re going to help all sorts of birds. So that in and of itself is a success.

“I mean, we all want to have electricity,” says Johnson, “but how can we provide electricity to the people of this country while minimizing the potential negative impact for the wildlife? To me, that’s what this is all about.”

Whooping Crane in flight. Photo by Connie Barr/Shutterstock

Co-existing Along Migration Routes

Decades of hard work have already been done to nurture and protect Whooping Cranes. The result has been one of the greatest bird comeback stories, and a shining example of two countries collaborating to save a species. Federal, state, and provincial agencies from both the United States and Canada, working with nonprofit groups as well as the private sector, continue to preserve and manage key habitat and closely monitor the cranes’ nesting success. New technologies such as satellite tracking are enabling biologists to learn more than ever before about their behavior and annual migration. And now the Kansas line-marking project provides reasons to hope that cranes and people can coexist along the migration routes.

Anne Lacy says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about Whooping Cranes’ future. “We’re living on this landscape and we are having an impact, period, full stop. Now, how do we lessen that impact on the things that are living there already? That’s probably a lesson that all of us can learn.”

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Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes

To our Canadian followers. If you’re in the Saskatoon, SK area on Thursday, January 17th, why not check out Mark Bidwell’s presentation “Ecology and Conservation of Whooping Cranes” put on by Saskatoon Nature Society. The public is welcome and it starts at 7:30 PM. The presentation will be held in Room 1130, Health Sciences E-wing, University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.

Mark specializes in endangered species and he is responsible for whooping crane research and conservation. In his talk he will discuss the current status of whooping cranes and what we know about their behaviour and movements during the breeding season and on their migration through Saskatchewan. Finally he will talk about what can be done to conserve cranes and their habitats.

Again, everyone is welcome and it is free to attend! For more information go to www.saskatoonnaturesociety.sk.ca/

Whooping Crane
Somewhere in Saskatchewan. Junior foraging with parents in the background. Photo by Val Mann
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Future Whooping Crane Island Habitat on Canton Lake, Oklahoma

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats as time goes by. During their 2,500 mile migration from their Canadian nesting area to their Texas wintering habitat they must stop 15 to 30 times to rest and feed. Secure stopover habitats are needed throughout the migration corridor approximately every 25 miles. And more secure wintering habitats are needed along the Texas coast near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Dwindling wetlands

Private lands have traditionally provided most of the “stopover habitats” but many of these properties are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming. So, what can we do to help? Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) contends that lands and waters on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) lakes, military base wetlands and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Many of these lands can be developed and/or managed to provide more stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes. Importantly, habitats for the cranes also benefit many other species of wildlife and fish. Likewise Whooping Cranes are compatible with other wildlife…

FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 21 USACE lakes within the wild Whooping Crane migration corridor. Some of these properties currently have suitable stopover wetland habitats while other areas could be enhanced with minor work.

USACE lakes within the 6 state migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitats”. Canton Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable.

Canton Lake, Oklahoma

Canton Lake contains 7,910 acres of surface water and 14,861 acres of public hunting land that is managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). This area is open year round, except for the migratory bird refuge which is closed annually from 15 October to 15 February. Canton Lake’s purpose is to provide flood risk management, water supply, fish and wildlife conservation and recreation.  Since its impoundment more than 60 years ago, it has been enjoyed by millions of people. The lake offers extensive opportunity for outdoor recreation activities.

FOTWW is aware that Canton Lake, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. Both USACE and ODWC personnel have observed Whooping Cranes on the lake several times.

As FOTWW Wildlife Biologist, I visited Canton Lake on October 10, 2018 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, USACE made arrangements for our trip. George Mayfield, Assistant Lake Manager and Chase Kokojan, ODWC participated in the lake stopover habitat evaluation. After discussing the natural resource objectives for Canton Lake we made a tour of the lake property by vehicle to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We identified several potential stopover habitat areas one of which is described below.

Canton Lake
Figure 1. Satellite photo of island at western end of Canton Lake. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. Additional treatments may be necessary to maintain the vegetation at a height height of 2 feet or less. Whooping Cranes require areas where they can readily observe predators such as coyotes and bobcats.

 

Canton Lake
Figure 2. This photo displays the land base at the boat ramp, the cattail and phragmites plants and the island (same as in Fig. 1) in the background. If managed properly the island and shore area can become excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wild creatures. Vegetation in the area can be treated with herbicide and allowed to dry. After the dead vegetation is dried, it can be burned. A second treatment may be necessary to get the areas described in good condition.

DESCIPTION OF POTENTIAL “STOPOVER HABITATS”:

The photos (Figs.1 and 2 are potential “stopover habitats” for endangered Whooping Cranes to rest and roost. The island is located in an isolated location and not near frequently travel roads or power lines. The size and configuration of the wetland area varies with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were approximately 1.5 feet higher than “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas and island are essentially clear of bushes and trees. Horizontal visibility from the island and shore roost sites, if properly managed, would allow Whooping Cranes to detect any predators that may be in the area. The slope of the shore and lake edge is gradual and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches would be available during “normal” lake water levels. There is little emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at these roost sites. The locations are 200 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Hundreds of acres of foraging areas are located on ODWC wildlife food plots and in nearby agriculture fields. In addition there are wild foods in adjacent managed grasslands and wetlands that provide an abundance of insects, wild seeds and other wild food.

 

FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.

***** 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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Corps of Engineer lakes in Oklahoma being evaluated for Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”

By Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles two times each year between their nesting area in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and their Aransas Wildlife Refuge winter habitat on the Texas coast. During these migrations they must stop to rest and feed 15 to 30 times. Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is searching for areas to provide these essential “stopover habitats”. Stopover habitats are equally as important as nesting and winter habitats.

Fort Supply Lake

Fort Supply Lake in northwest Oklahoma is one of four Corps of Engineer (COE) Lakes that have recently been evaluated to determine if they have any existing or potential “stopover habitat” for migrating Whooping Cranes.  FOTWW visited the four lakes as part of its continuing efforts to encourage protection and management of decreasing habitat for migrating Whooping Cranes.

Despite heavy rainfall, flooding and high water levels in three lakes FOTWW‘s wildlife Biologist Chester McConnell explained that: “Our evaluation team continued towork in the challenging conditions. Fortunately COE and Oklahoma Wildlife Division (ODWC) personnel accompanied me and they were well informed about the lake’s habitats. So, together, we successfully identified some good stopover habitat sites.” Fort Supply Lake is just one of many COE lakes that FOTWW has, and will be evaluating. The Operation Management Plan FY 2014 thru 2018 covers information for the COE area of primary management responsibility. The “Wildlife Management/Hunting program” is described in a separate document prepared by ODWC. The lake was authorized under the Flood Control Act approved June 22, 1936. Construction of the lake was begun in October 1938 and completed in August 1942.  There is a total of 9,899 acres of project land and water. The lake covers 1,786 surface acres of open water. A total of 8,079 acres are used for wildlife management, recreation and project operations. Although the primary mission is flood control, important secondary benefits are water supply, recreation, and natural resource management. Importantly one of the natural resources needing the lake is the only wild population of wild Whooping Cranes remaining on earth.

Whooping Cranes observed at fort supply lake

FOTWW is aware that Fort Supply Lake, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. Both USACE and ODWC personnel have observed Whooping Cranes on the lake several times.

Fort Supply Lake, Oklahoma. Figure 1.  Two members of the team returning from a cruise around Fort Supply Lake to evaluate potential Whooping Crane "stopover habitats". Eric Summers, Assistant Lake Manager, Corps of Engineers (on right) guided the evaluation team on lake waters.  Eddie Wilson, Senior Biologist, Oklahoma Wildlife Division (on left) guided us on a tour of the wildlife management areas around the lake. These men are very informed about the lake and its surrounding wildlife habitats, vegetation and water levels. McConnell said “Their assistance was invaluable and greatly appreciated.”  Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Figure 1.  Two members of the team returning from a cruise around Fort Supply Lake to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. Eric Summers, Assistant Lake Manager, Corps of Engineers (on right) guided the evaluation team on lake waters.  Eddie Wilson, Senior Biologist, Oklahoma Wildlife Division (on left) guided us on a tour of the wildlife management areas around the lake. These men are very informed about the lake and its surrounding wildlife habitats, vegetation and water levels. McConnell said “Their assistance was invaluable and greatly appreciated.”  Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Fort Supply Lake, Oklahoma Figure 2. The short grass, shallow water and absence of trees and bushes in this photo cause it to be suitable for Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” during normal water levels. During our evaluation, abundant rain (8+ inches) caused the lake depth to be deeper than normal. Water depths vary occasionally due to abundant rain and long drought periods. Importantly, due to various shore configurations, when one area of a lake is not suitable, some other area of the lake will likely be suitable. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Figure 2.  The short grass, shallow water and absence of trees and bushes in this photo cause it to be suitable for Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” during normal water levels. During our evaluation, abundant rain (8+ inches) caused the lake depth to be deeper than normal. Water depths vary occasionally due to abundant rain and long drought periods. Importantly, due to various shore configurations, when one area of a lake is not suitable, some other area of the lake will likely be suitable. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Fort Supply Lake, Oklahoma Figure  3. This photo identifies a 3 to 4acre site near the lake that could be developed into a shallow water“stopover  habitat” (3 inches to 6 inches deep) for Whooping Cranes and other wild creatures. The vegetation in the area could be treated with herbicide and burned when dry. A low level berm as outlined can be constructed around the developed pond to hold shallow water for a “stopover habitat”. This small wetland would operate independently from the water levels in the lake. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Figure 3.  This photo identifies a 3 to 4 acre site near the lake that could be developed into a shallow water“stopover  habitat” (3 inches to 6 inches deep) for Whooping Cranes and other wild creatures. The vegetation in the area could be treated with herbicide and burned when dry. A low level berm as outlined can be constructed around the developed pond to hold shallow water for a “stopover habitat”. This small wetland would operate independently from the water levels in the lake. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Fort Supply Lake, Oklahoma. Figure 4. This photo and figure 3 reveals conditions at the 3 to 4 acre site near the lake that could be developed into a shallow water habitat for Whooping Cranes and other wild creatures. The area vegetation could be treated with herbicide and burned when dry. A low level berm (Fig. 3) can be constructed around the pond to hold shallow water (3 inches to 6 inches deep) for a “stopover habitat”. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Figure 4.  This photo and figure 3 reveals conditions at the 3 to 4 acre site near the lake that could be developed into a shallow water habitat for Whooping Cranes and other wild creatures. The area vegetation could be treated with herbicide and burned when dry. A low level berm (Fig. 3) can be constructed around the pond to hold shallow water (3 inches to 6 inches deep) for a “stopover habitat”. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.
Fort Supply Lake, Oklahoma. Figure 5. ODWC operates the wildlife management and hunting programs on 5,418 acres ofFort Supply Lake. This photo illustrates one of their 21 food plots on the lake property. Whooping Cranes will forage for grain and insects in such plots.
Figure 5.  ODWC operates the wildlife management and hunting programs on 5,418 acres of Fort Supply Lake. This photo illustrates one of their 21 food plots on the lake property. Whooping Cranes will forage for grain and insects in such plots. Photo by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers.

***** 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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