By Pam Bates, VP, Fiends of the Wild Whoopers
Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) efforts to protect develop and properly manage wild Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” continues. Many people ask what FOTWW does when we travel throughout the Whooping Crane migration area. So we will provide some answers.
Our wildlife biologist Chester McConnell and field assistant Dorothy McConnell travel to all seven states in the Whooping Crane migration corridor to assist where we can. During the past two years they have traveled to 34 Corps of Engineer (COE) lakes in 7 states. They recently returned from a long trip to South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana to evaluate “stopover habitat on 7 COE lakes. FOTWW’s objective is to protect, improve or replace decreasing habitats. All of these lakes are on the Missouri River which flows through the prime migration route for the Whoopers.
FOTWW’s team linked up with COE Conservation Biologist David Hoover in Kansas City. FOTWW selects the lakes to evaluate and David makes arrangements with the lake managers that will guide our evaluation team around the lakes. The FOTWW-COE formed a “stopover habitat” team.
FOTWW’s first visit was on the COE’s Lewis and Clark Lake in Nebraska and South Dakota (9-10-2019). The lake is approximately 28 miles in length with over 90 miles of shoreline. The 31,400-acre reservoir has some good “stopover habitat” but much more needs serious management attention. Phragmites, an invasive plant has spread over large areas in and around the lake. Such areas will not be used by Whooping Cranes unless management controls the phragmites (See Fig.1).
The good news is that the COE has plans to use aerial spraying of herbicides on 2,200 acres of phragmites during April 2020 to kill the invasive plant. After the dead plants are dried, they will be burned. This will result in good waterfowl and Whooping Crane habitat on many sites. Figure 2 shows a helicopter spraying herbicide.
McConnell described an excellent project that the team observed upstream from Chief Standing Bridge: “Here a large island is being managed for threatened least tern and piping plover. Managers have cleared most of the woody vegetation and used prescribed fire to kill back most to the weeds and other vegetation. This same habitat will also be good stopover habitat for endangered Whooping Cranes” (Figure 3).
More whooping crane stopover habitat further north
Further north, the FOTWW-COE stopover habitat evaluation team visited COE Lake Francis Case in North Dakota (9-11-2019). This lake is 107 miles long, at normal pool. Significantly the shoreline length is 540 miles with numerous areas where Whooping Cranes can stopover to rest, forage and roost for a day or so during their two 2,400 miles migrations each year. Like so many areas on most lakes, phragmites is a problem. The good news is that Aaron Gregor, Wildlife Biologist and James Lynde are using helicopters to spray herbicides on the invasive plants and, after the sprayed plants dry, they will be burned (Figure 5).
Continuing northward, the FOTWW-COE habitat evaluation team stopped at Lake Sharpe in South Dakota (9-12-2019). The reservoir length is 80 miles with a 200 miles shoreline. Here the team linked up with Brandon Bucon, COE Natural Resources Specialist. The COE wildlife work coupled with that of the two adjacent Indian Reservation has resulted in many improvements.
Huge migrations of waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds use the lake as an important stopover during migration. Numerous songbirds, upland game birds and birds of prey are abundant year around. The COE and Indians have natural resource management programs to improve habitat by planting hundreds of acres of food plots, numerous trees and establishing dense nesting cover.
And another plus for this lake is that Whooping Cranes have been observed near by the Crow Creek Indians on their reservation. FOTWW Biologist McConnell had visited this area previously working with the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Indian Reservations. Here the team got to observe some results of previous effective herbicide spraying to kill cattail and phragmites.
The FOTWW-COE team linked up with Russ Somsen, Natural Resource Specialist during their fourth lake stop at Lake Oahe in South and North Dakota (9-13-2019). Somsen described Lake Oahe as a 370,000 acres reservoir at maximum pool. The reservoir length is 231 miles with a shoreline length of 2,250 miles. The lake connects South Dakota’s capital at Pierre with North Dakota’s capital at Bismarck. The scenic beauty attracts more than 1.5 million visitors every year including fishermen, hunters, sightseers and bird watchers. The Lake has an abundance of habitat in dry years when water levels are low and lake shores are wide.
Somsen informed the FOTWW-COE evaluation team that many thousands of waterfowl and numerous species of songbirds and other wild birds migrate to Lake Oahe and beyond every year. And many non-migrating birds including turkey, pheasant, grouse and prairie chicken are plentiful. Likewise, Lake Oahe supports some of the best fishing in the region. All forms of outdoor recreation are available.
Importantly, Lake Oahe with its vast shoreline provide critical habitat to many threatened and endangered species of wildlife and plants. The Corps works with other federal, state, local, tribal and private entities to protect these species. These agencies work under authority of the federal Endangered Species Act to protect and manage threatened and endangered species.
Fortunately, advised Russ Somsen, “Phragmites is no problem here. High water 10 years ago killed most of the salt cedar invasion. COE followed up and kill remaining salt cedar stands by spraying with herbicides.
The largest COE reservoir in the U.S.
Lake Sakakawea, the largest COE reservoir in the U.S. was the 5th stop for the FOTWW-COE “stopover habitat” team. They met with Lake Manager Aaron Gregor to learn about the lake and discuss any “stopover habitat” opportunities for Whooping Cranes. Later the team and Lake Manager Aaron visited a small portion of the lake shore.
Lake Sakakawea is 178 miles long, six miles wide at its widest point. It’s shoreline is 1,884 miles. The lake contains a third of the total water stored by the Missouri River mainstem reservoir system.
Wildlife is abundant on project habitats. Endangered species including the least tern and piping plover nest on the lake sandbars. Whoopers and peregrine falcons visit the lake occasionally. Bird watchers, hunters and fishermen use the project wildlife resources in large numbers.
The FOTWW-COE team and Lake Manager Gregor visited several sites on the lake to discuss Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” features. The sites visited were all quality habitats. Mr. Gregor estimated that there were 200 more areas around the lake shore similar to the ones we visited. FOTWW’s Wildlife Biologist McConnell, after visiting many more habitat sites and studying satellite photos believes that the Lake Manager’s estimate is conservative. In any case, McConnell declares “there are an abundance of excellent stopover habitats on Lake Sakakawea”(See fig 9).
The FOTWW-COE “stopover habitat” team made its sixth visit at Fort Peck Lake and Dam in Montana. With a volume of 18,700,000 acre feet when full, Fort Peck is the fifth largest artificial lake in the United States. It extends 134 miles through central Montana, and its twisting, inlet-studded shoreline has a total length of some 1,520 miles. The lake covers an area of 245,000 acres, making it the largest in Montana by surface area,
The reservoir is also a tourist attraction, with 27 designated recreational sites bordering its shores. Bordering nearly the entire reservoir is the 1,719-square-mile Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which has preserved much of the high prairie and hill country around the lake in a more or less natural state.
Together, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge encompass an area of 1.1 million acres including the 245,000 acres Fort Peck reservoir that span about 125 air miles along the Missouri River, from the Fort Peck Dam west to the boundary with the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Given the size and remoteness of Charles M. Russell, the area has changed very little from the historic voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition, through the era of outlaws and homesteaders, to the present time. Elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, sage and sharp-tailed grouse, and bald eagles make the Refuge home.
After discussing the natural resource objectives for Fort Peck Lake with staff members the FOTWW-COE team and staff members made a tour of the lake property by boat to examine the most likely places that would provide Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We traveled 64 miles on the lake that has a total length of some 1,520 miles to observe some of the shore area that would be suitable as “stopover habitats”. In some areas westward of Fort Peck the banks are steep and shorelines are small and not suitable for Whoopers. Importantly, the number and high quality “stopover habitats” that we observed was overwhelming. Due to time constraints we could make a reconnaissance of only part of the lake.
FOTWW’s McConnell explained that: “Based on observations by FOTWW and Fort Peck staff, we conservatively estimated that a minimum of one good “stopover habitat” per every two miles would be reasonable. That computes to 750 “stopover habitats” on Fort Peck Lake. The day we visited the lake was 6 feet above normal but numerous shorelines were good “stopover habitats”. During normal (lower) water level, more shore area is exposed and stopover habitats are much larger.
One more stop before heading home
As the FOTWW-COE team headed back to their home offices, they made one more stop at Pipestem Lake in North Dakota. They met with Lake Manager James Dixon who is the only staff person. The team discussed the need for Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” and what could be done on Pipestem Lake to protect, maintain and develop stopover habitat.
Pipestem Lake is small with an 840 acres conservation pool. The length of the conservation pool is 5.5 miles and the shoreline is 14.5 miles. The FOTWW-COE team drove around the lake and observed many White Pelicans, egrets, killdeers and other birds. birds along the shore. The team estimated that 35% of the shore area is good Whooping Crane stopover habitat (Figure 13)..
The team recommended development of a policy on Off-Road-Vehicles; ATV use; invasive plants and an agricultural program.
***** 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.