Abundant Whooping Crane stopover habitat on some Corps of Engineer Lakes in Dakotas and Montana

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.

First stop

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).

Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 1. Phragmites is the brown colored plants in the river (green arrows point to a small fraction of the phragmites). The plants grow in thick stands to a height of 6 to 8 feet. It is growing all across the lake on areas where shallow waters areas have formed. The numerous shallow water areas are caused by eroded soils from upstream areas.

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.

Figure 2. Helicopter in process of spraying herbicides on phragmites in Lewis and Clark Lake. The green arrows point to some of the phragmites.

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).

Figure 3. After spraying the phragmites with herbicides and it has dried, the COE burns the dead vegetation to create habitat for birds including Whooping Cranes, terns and plovers that need open areas to forage, rest, nest and roost. Note the green arrow pointing to a person setting fire to the phragmites.
Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 4. After the control burn in figure 3, the area can be managed for a variety of wild creatures. Whooping Cranes will benefit from some of these improved stopover habitats.
Figure 5. Islands/sandbars in Lewis and Clark Lake provide good “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks manages these same habitats for endangered least tern and piping plover. (See green arrows).

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).

Whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 6. Phragmites, bushes and small trees being control burned on Lake Francis Case which will improve habitat for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl and other wildlife. (Aaron Gregor, Natural Resource Specialist provided photos.)

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.

Figure 7. A good place for Whoopers to forage and rest near the shore of Lake Sharp.

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.

Figure 8. Whooping Cranes such as these are visitors to the lake. The white birds are adult Whooping Cranes and the smaller birds are immature Whoopers. ( Photo by John Martell )
whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 9. This beautiful landscape looks like it was made for a “stopover area” for Whooping Cranes. But in addition to its beauty, the area provides necessary features to help the Whoopers rest and forage in a peaceful location. Flight glide path clear of obstructions are good for Whooping Cranes to fly in and land near roosting sites. There are few minor thick bushes and trees in or near landing site which helps to make for safe landings and departures. Once the Whoopers have landed they can forage for local foods, (insects, seeds, frogs and other small animals). Then when they are ready, the Whoopers can follow the gradual or gentle slopes into the lake where water is shallow – 2 to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. In addition, there is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Farm grain fields or pastures land is within one mile of stopover site for foraging.

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).

whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 10. This Lake Sakakawea site has a wide shore for Whooping Cranes to land. And there is a small water pool inward that can provide additional roosting area in shallow water. There are no bushes/tall grass that would hide predators. Importantly, numerous grain fields are nearby where the Whoopers can forage.
whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 11. Some shallow water areas like this one on Lake Sakakawea are located on shores of most lakes. Such areas provide excellent stopover sites for Whooping Cranes. Extensive horizontal visibility allows predators to be readily observed. Occasionally, as the grass and bushes grow taller, prescribed fire may be needed to set back the growth.

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.

Figure 12. Fort Peck Lake. This is the crew that made the 65 miles boat trip on Fort Peck Lake to evaluate Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. The crew includes two Friends of the Wild Whoopers officials and five U.S. Army Corps of Engineers natural resource personnel. Names from left to right– Top row: Cindy Lott, Resource Specialist-; Patricia Gilbert, Natural Resource Specialist, Ft. Peck; Bottom row: Zachary Montreui, Omaha office; David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City; Chester McConnell, FOTWW Wildlife Biologist; Dorothy McConnell, FOTWW Field Assistant; Reece Nelson, Natural Resource Specialist, Omaha office.

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.

whooping crane stopover habitat
Figure 13. This peninsular near the dam is an excellent “stopover habitat” for migrating Whooping Cranes. Water along the shore is shallow (2” to 11” depth) and suitable for the cranes. Likewise the low growing green vegetation is a good foraging area for Whooping Cranes. Note the White Pelicans along the shore.

 

***** 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.

fall migration
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Whooping Crane Fall Migration – 2019

Fall Migration Underway

whooping crane fall migration
Whooping cranes in Saskatchewan during fall migration. Photo by Beryl Peake – 2018

Fall migration of the only natural wild population of whooping cranes is underway. The Whooping Crane migration from Wood Buffalo to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take as many as 50 days to complete. The flock is expected to migrate through Nebraska, North Dakota and other states along the Central Flyway over the next several weeks. The Wildlife Fish and Game and Parks agencies along the flyway encourage the public to report any whooping crane sightings.

If you should observe a whooping crane as they migrate along the Central Flyway, please report them to the proper agencies. We have compiled a list of agencies and contact information below. If you need help with identification, please click on our Whooper Identification page.

Montana reports

Allison Begley
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
1420 East Sixth Avenue
Helena, MT  59620
abegley@mt.gov
(406) 444-3370

Jim Hansen
MT Fish, Wildlife, & Parks
2300 Lake Elmo Drive
Billings, MT  59105
jihansen@mt.gov
(406) 247-2957

North Dakota

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701-848-2466)
Audubon, (701-442-5474)
National wildlife refuges
North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701-328-6300) or to local game wardens

South Dakota

Eileen Dowd Stukel; eileen.dowdstukel@state.sd.us; (605-773-4229)
Casey Heimerl; (605-773-4345)
Natalie Gates; Natalie_Gates@fws.gov; (605-224-8793), ext. 227
Jay Peterson; Jay_Peterson@fws.gov; (605-885-6320), ext. 213

Nebraska

Nebraska Game and Parks (402-471-0641)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (308-379-5562)
The Crane Trust’s Whooper Watch hotline (888-399-2824)
Emails may be submitted to joel.jorgensen@nebraska.gov

Kansas

Jason Wagner
jason.wagner@ks.gov
(620-793-3066)

Ed Miller
ed.miller@ks.gov
(620-331-6820)

Whooping Crane sightings at or near Quivira NWR should be reported to:
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
620-486-2393
They can also be reported to this email:  quivira@fws.gov

Oklahoma

Sightings can be logged online here

Matt Fullerton
Endangered Species Biologist
(580-571-5820)

Mark Howery
Wildlife Diversity Biologist
(405-990-7259)

Texas

Texas Whooper Watch also has a project in I-Naturalist that is now fully functional. You can find it here. You can report sightings directly in I-Naturalist via your Smart Phone. This allows you to easily provide photo verification and your location.

If you are not a smart phone app user, you can still report via email: whoopingcranes@tpwd.state.tx.us or phone: (512-389-999). Please note that our primary interest is in reports from outside the core wintering range.

Do not disturb and why reporting is important

Should you see a whooping crane, please do not get close or disturb it. Keep your distance and make a note of date, time, location, and what the whooping crane is doing. If the whooping crane is wearing bands or a transmitter, please note the color(s) and what leg(s) the bands are on.

whooping crane fall migration
Whooping cranes in Saskatchewan during their fall migration. Photo by Kim and Val Mann – 2018

You may wonder why the wild life agencies are asking for these sightings to be reported. The reports are very helpful in gathering data and information on when and where the whooping cranes stopover, what type of habitat they are choosing, and how many there are.
With just over 500 wild whooping cranes migrating along the Central Flyway, odds are low of seeing a wild whooping crane. However, FOTWW hopes that someone reading this article will be one of the lucky few and if you are, please report your sighting so that these agencies and other conservation groups, including FOTWW can continue helping these magnificent cranes.

 

***** 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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Whooping Crane Survey Results: Winter 2018–2019

504 Wild Whooping Cranes Estimated at ANWR this past winter

 

Whooping Crane Population
Whooping Crane at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kevin Sims®

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have completed analysis of last winter’s aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population. “Preliminary data analysis indicated 504 whooping cranes, including 13 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas.

This is comparable with the prior winter’s estimate of 505 whooping cranes, indicating the population remained stable but did not experience the growth this year that it has the past several years. An additional 12 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 2nd year in a row that the population has topped the 500 mark. The lack of population growth last winter likely resulted from a low chick production season on the breeding grounds of northern Canada during the spring-summer of 2018.”

 

Delay in Whooping Crane survey

During winter 2018–2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued to use a Quest Kodiak aircraft and surveys were conducted in mid-February. The primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres; Figure 1) was surveyed multiple times during February 9–14, 2019. San Jose Island, West Marsh, Lamar-Tatton, Matagorda Island Central, and Welder Flats-Dewberry were surveyed 4 times and Blackjack was surveyed 5 times. Due to logistical constrains and poor weather conditions, the secondary survey areas (approximately 169,300 acres; Figure 1) were not surveyed this winter. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the survey later than planned which likely resulted in underestimates of recruitment due to late season changes in plumage coloration.

No growth this year for Whooping Crane Population

The long-term growth rate in the whooping crane population has averaged 4.5% (n = 95; 95% CI = 1.77– 6.98%). The population remained stable from winter 2017–2018 to winter 2018–2019  In summer 2018, the Canadian Wildlife Service reported 24 whooping crane chicks were fledged at Wood-Buffalo Nation Park which is lower than normal. Recruitment was low resulting in no population growth.

You can see the full report at the following link:
https://ecos.fws.gov/ServCat/DownloadFile/166739

***** 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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The Endangered Species Act Is Under Political Attack

Politicians backed by extractive industry interests are undertaking some of the most serious threats ever seen in the four decades of this landmark conservation law.

(Article summarized.) To read Earthjustice’s entire article: Click Here

Whooping Cranes

Endangered Species Act
Figure 1. This delicate bird is one of the most endangered animals on earth. Jim Carpenter / USFWS

Earthjustice is challenging in court the use of the highly toxic pesticide Enlist Duo — a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D — that the rare cranes are likely to consume on their migration path.

Likewise, Friends of the Wild Whoopers has been working for several years to protect, develop and manage Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” along their migration path.

The Endangered Species Act is wildly popular among American voters.

According to a national poll conducted in 2015, 90% of American voters support the Actimpressive results in an era of partisan strife.

Scientists believe we are currently undergoing the sixth mass wave of extinction ever to impact our planet. Stemming from human activity, this loss of biodiversity is occurring at an unprecedented pace. Many species — no one knows how many — are disappearing even before they are discovered. That’s why the Endangered Species Act is urgently needed.

Scientists estimated that without the Act, at least 227 additional species would have gone extinct between 1973 and 2005.

As important, the Act has protected millions of acres of forests, beaches, and wetlands — those species’ essential habitats — from degradation. Thanks to this legal safety net, today’s children are able to experience the wonder of rare wild creatures as living, breathing parts of our natural heritage, not as dusty museum specimens.

Now the Endangered Species Act is under political attack. Earthjustice has spent decades defending imperiled wildlife and we aren’t stopping now.

Last summer, the Interior Department released a series of proposed changes to the way the agency interprets and carries out actions under the Endangered Species Act — including changes to the requirement that federal agencies consult with expert wildlife agencies and scientists when seeking permits for projects such as logging or oil and gas drilling operations.

In addition, the Trump administration aims to incorporate economic considerations into decisions about whether or not species on the brink of extinction are protected — while not taking climate change into account.

Sweeping rollbacks weaken endangered species protections

The sweeping regulatory changes were finalized on Aug. 12, 2019. The rollbacks weaken endangered species protections by permitting actions that lead to the gradual destruction of a listed species as long as each step is sufficiently modest, creating a loophole exempting activities that could harm listed species by hastening climate change, and more.

“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal,” said Drew Caputo, Earthjustice Vice President of Litigation for Lands, Wildlife, and Oceans. “We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”(Our Clients Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, National Parks Conservation Association,) Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians

The lawsuit challenging the rollbacks makes three claims against the Trump administration’s new rules:

  1. The Trump administration failed to publicly disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of these rules, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
  2. The administration inserted new changes into the final rules that were never made public and not subject to public comment, cutting the American people out of the decision-making process.
  3. The administration violated the language and purpose of the Endangered Species Act by unreasonably changing requirements for compliance with Section 7, which requires federal agencies to ensure that actions they authorize, fund, or carry out do not jeopardize the existence of any species listed, or destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat of any listed species.

Meanwhile, anti-environment interests in the House and Senate, backed by oil and gas corporations, mining companies, and other extractive industries, have orchestrated additional attacks on the Endangered Species Act, introducing 116 legislative rollbacks in the 115th Congress alone.

The stakes are too high to let this happen. It takes millions of years for species to evolve — but if we fail to protect our incredible, diverse fellow species from manmade threats, they can be lost in the blink of an eye.

Earthjustice at forefront of fight to protect Endangered species

Earthjustice, born in the same era as the Endangered Species Act, has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure this critical statute is enforced, acting in the interest of hundreds of plants and animals to ensure their survival. These benefits extend to people too. Humans are not isolated from their natural environment, and what happens to other creatures affects our own existence, too.

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