Indian Reservations in the Dakotas have abundant Whooping Crane “stopover habitat”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Indian reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota are providing huge amounts of “stopover habitat” for migrating wild whooping cranes. As Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) wildlife biologist, I visited six of the reservations to evaluate numerous “stopover habitats” and to provide management recommendations”.

Indian reservations eager for FOTWW’s visit

I contacted the Great Plains Region Indian Headquarters to explain FOTWW’s whooping crane stopover habitat project. Regional Headquarters endorsed our efforts and furnished contact information for natural resource personnel on individual reservations. Natural resource personnel were then contacted on each reservation and FOTWW’s project explained to them. Each reservation wanted to be part of the project and invited FOTWW to visit them.

The reservations FOTWW visited collectively have approximately 2.6 million hectares of land. There are approximately 1,000 permitted range units and 6,000 farm/pasture leases on 7 reservations. The permitted areas and farm/pasture leases are managed under reservation guidelines which are largely useful to wildlife. The headquarters reservation biologist (each reservation has a biologist) advised that there are over 1,700 potential stopover ponds/wetlands on the reservations within the whooping crane migration corridor.

Goals for visitation

I made visits to each reservation: (1) to provide training for personnel about whooping crane stopover habitat needs, (2) to evaluate the habitats and (3) to make habitat management recommendations. Based on FOTWW field evaluations and accepted whooping crane habitat features, reservation natural resource personnel estimated that approximately 75% of the 1,700 ponds/wetlands could provide good stopover habitat, although some may require management criteria.

FOTWW was very impressed with whooping crane stopover habitats and their management on all reservation sited that we visited. We were also pleased with the cooperative attitude of all personnel that we met with.

Potential benefits of livestock

Finally, during the field trips, FOTWW detected an activity of livestock that is potentially beneficial to whooping cranes. As noted above, whooping cranes do not use wetlands as stopover sites where tall, dense vegetation closely surrounds the pond shore, where predators may be lurking. Around some ponds, we observed that livestock had grazed and trampled the vegetation when reaching a shallow area where they can safely enter the pond’s edge to obtain drinking water (Fig. 4). This resulted in unobstructed shore areas that would allow whooping cranes to use these ponds as stopover sites. Whooping cranes favor these same types of shallow areas with sparse vegetation to enter ponds to roost. We observed this phenomenon of vegetation trampling by livestock on numerous wetlands, especially in North and South Dakota. Thus, livestock pond water resources could incidentally provide additional suitable stopover habitat for whooping cranes.

Evaluation progress

FOTWW has now completed whooping crane stopover habitat evaluations on all suitable military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor. Management recommendation reports have been provided to all areas visited.

Currently, we are evaluating Corps of Engineer Lakes within the migration corridor to locate, protect and manage stopover habitats for the only remaining wild Whooping Crane population on Earth. This work is being accomplished under a Cooperative Agreement with the Corps.

Indian reservations
Figure 1. Map showing Indian Reservations in North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Indian reservations
Figure 2. Cheyenne River Indian Reservation Sioux Tribe, S.D. Pond / wetland useful as a stopover habitat for by Whooping Cranes. Young men in photo are in a tribal work-study project. FOTWW taught them about the features that make ponds/wetlands to be good stopover habitats. They learned rapidly and will be the future managers of the natural resources on the reservation.
Indian reservations
Figure 3. Spirit Lake Reservation, (Fort Totten) N.D. This reservation has many good stopover habitats. Flight glide path is clear of obstructions for Whooping Cranes to land near roosting sites. There is no tall grass or woody vegetation around most of this lake. Shore area is shallow with areas 5 to 10 inches deep for roosting sites. Sloped are gradual or gentle into lakes / ponds where water is shallow. Little or no emergent or submerged vegetation in lake at roost areas. There is extensive horizontal visibility from roost site so predators can be detected. Lake is 300 or more yards from human development or disturbance such as power lines. Foraging fields with grain crops and insects within one mile of stopover area.
Indian reservations
Figure 4. Pond with cattle grazing on Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Note that vegetation around portions of the shore is short (A) and cattail invasion (B) has been restricted due to livestock grazing. The shallow area (C) within the pond would provide suitable roosting sites for whooping 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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Wintering Whooping Crane Update

Wintering Whooping Crane Update, February 6, 2019

Wintering Whooping Crane Update Time
Dr. Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Getting ready for the annual whooping crane abundance survey at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

We plan to begin our annual whooping crane abundance survey this week, and our goal is to fly a minimum of six survey days. Phil Thorpe, with our Migratory Birds Program, will be piloting us in a wheeled Kodiak. Hopefully our dreary and wet weather as of late will clear enough to allow safe flying conditions.

Recruitment of juvenile cranes

In addition to an overall estimate of the winter population size, the survey provides us an estimate of how many juveniles were “recruited” into the population this year. Simply put, the only way to effectively grow a population is for births to exceed deaths—i.e. recruiting juveniles into the adult population. The past few years’ increases have been tied to high numbers of fledged chicks on the breeding grounds, but Canada only estimated 23 fledged chicks during their survey this past August. For comparison, that is 40 fewer chicks than reported in the August 2017 survey. Annual variation in fledged chicks is to be expected and we’ve seen this amount of fluctuation in the historic survey records dating back to the 1950’s. Weather in the breeding grounds is often a major driver of chick fledging rate in Wood Buffalo National Park. This past June, when most eggs were hatching, was unseasonably cold and wet—not ideal conditions for early chick survival.

Technology allows for better tracking

Wintering Whooping Crane Update
Whooping Crane family in the morning sunlight at Aransas NWR. Photo by Kevin Sims – Aransas Bay Birding Charters (Click on photo to view full size)

Efforts to trap and mark whooping cranes here at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for our telemetry study is ongoing, and thus far this winter we have marked 6 adult whooping cranes here on the Refuge with cellular telemetry devices. With these devices providing locations every 15 minutes, we are able to understand daily movements (night and day) and habitat use at a level that wasn’t available even a few short years ago. You can find more about our use of this revolutionary technology to conserve whooping cranes here.

One of the new developments that this technology is revealing is how and when whooping cranes move around here on the wintering range. In the past, we understood wintering whooping cranes, particularly mated pairs, to stay in a “territory” or one general area of a few hundred acres, all winter. With the telemetry data, we are starting to see a much more complex picture of movement, with some whooping crane pairs mostly following our traditional understanding of a single territory and others making multiple movements across the entire wintering range throughout the winter. It is difficult to say whether this is related to food availability or simply individual differences, but it does help us understand the need to focus our conservation efforts at a landscape scale—well beyond Refuge boundaries.

Opportunities for viewing whooping cranes

There are several opportunities for visitors to Aransas NWR to view whooping cranes in publicly accessible areas this winter. Whooping cranes have been consistently sighted from the Heron Flats viewing deck, the observation tower and the tour loop near Mustang Slough. We also consistently observed a family group of whooping crane in the Mustang Lake salt marsh in front of the observation tower, so you have an excellent opportunity to view whooping cranes at a respectful distance. Please come by and say hello to us at this year’s upcoming Whooping Crane Festival starting February 21 in Port Aransas!

Habitat Management on Aransas NWR

No prescribed burns have taken place yet this winter due to the wet conditions.  However, we are planning for prescribed burns on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR this winter pending drying conditions.

Recent Precipitation/Salinity around Aransas NWR

December-current precipitation: 6.38” @ Aransas HQ

Salinity at GBRA 1: averaging around 11 parts per thousand.

 

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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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KAW LAKE, OK – Whooping Crane “Stopover Habitat”

by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

So, as the New Year of 2019 arrives, what is Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) doing for the Whooping Cranes? We are continuing our major project to protect and help manage “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes. Yep, not sexy but it is the most important need of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population which is the last remaining wild whooping cranes on Earth.

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo wild Whooping Cranes can take care of themselves with two exceptions. They need man to help protect their habitat and for people not to shoot them.

FOTWW wildlife biologist Chester McConnell visited several lakes in Oklahoma recently to evaluate the potential for “stopover habitat” for migrating wild Whooping Cranes. One of these was Kaw Lake.

Our visit to Kaw Lake

Well, it rained for three days causing the lake to be in flood stage 8 feet above normal pool. So the high flood waters prevented a complete evaluation of potential “stopover’ habitat for the Whoopers. Not to be out done, FOTWW’s McConnell and Corps of Engineers Kaw Lake personnel did the best they could under the circumstances.

With the assistance of Hutch Todd, Kaw Lake Biologist and Peat Robinson, Kaw Lake Manager, FOTWW studied satellite photos made during past years when the lake pool was at normal pool level.. Using this process, we were pleased to learn about the three excellent potential sites that can be protected and managed to provide some important “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes.

There appears to be few stopover habitats for Whooping Cranes on Kaw Lake’s main pool but the upstream river that flows into the lake has many sandbars that have some good sites (Figures 1 and 2). The lake’s main pool shore areas are mostly steep with abundant trees growing close to the lake edge. These conditions do not lend themselves to stopover habitat for Whooping Cranes.

FOTWW’s McConnell advised that, “We did identify three areas with good potential stopover habitat. These are important and we encourage Kaw Lake personnel to protect and manage them carefully. The three stopover areas can provide diversity to stopover habitats for endangered Whooping Cranes and many waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds and other wildlife species that need wetlands.”

Location of existing “stopover sites”

The photos (Figs. 1 and 2) illustrate three potential “stopover areas” on Kaw Lake and upstream where endangered Whooping Cranes can rest, forage and roost during their two annual migrations. The size and configuration of these stopover areas vary with the levels of lake water. When the photos in this report were taken, water levels were “normal”. Flight glide paths to the shore areas are available from different directions for approaching cranes. The shore areas at the three sites need some management to clear bushes, trees and other obstructions. Horizontal visibility from the shore and water roost sites allows Whooping Cranes to detect predators that may be in the area. The shore and lake edge at the three sites has some gradual slopes and some water depths of 2 to 10 inches available during “normal” lake water levels. The water is clear and supports abundant aquatic life. Foraging is available on USACE property and in numerous 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.

Recommendations

FOTWW recommended that the Corps of Engineers and OWDC managers should focus on protecting all potential stopover sites that we identified. These areas currently appear to have good “stopover habitats” with safe roosting features and nearby agricultural landscapes that provide foraging opportunities.

FOTWW sincerely appreciates the interest and cooperation of Kaw Lake and Tulsa District personnel and other officials of the Corps of Engineers who cooperated with us and provided documents that assisted in our evaluation. And a special thanks to David Hoover, USACE who arranged our field trips to four lakes in Oklahoma.

Kaw Lake, Oklahoma
Figure 1. This photo is a close up of the sandbar in Figure 3. It shows the current open area (white) where Whooping Cranes could stopover and the trees that need to be cleared.
Kaw Lake, Oklahoma
Figure 2. The sandbars in this photo are several river miles upstream of the larger sandbars in Figure 3. Marker number “1”is a wide sandbar clear of vegetation. Whooping Cranes could land here and locate shallow water available where they could roost. The sandbar at marker number “2” can also be developed into another good stopover site if the shrubs and trees identified by the arrows are cleared by cutting, burning or spraying with an appropriate herbicide.
KAW LAKE, OKLAHOMA
Figure 3. The sandbars at the head of Kaw Lake can serve as an excellent “stopover habitat” for Whooping Cranes during their migrations. The island formed as upstream banks of the Arkansas River eroded and the sand washed downstream until it met with slack waters of the lake. At this point the sand dropped out of the river water column to form the island. These islands will need management to control growth of trees and shrubs. These can be controlled by spraying with appropriate herbicides or mechanical means.

***** 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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