Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator
It seemed like fall would never arrive after a long, hot summer, but cooler, shorter days have finally made an appearance with many species of migrants now frequenting the friendly skies! Whooping Crane migration is in full swing and the first pair of our winter residents was reported by photographer John Humbert in the Seadrift area on October 9. Regular U.S. migration hotspots like Quivira NWR in Kansas have already reported their first whooping cranes of the season as well. If you have a question on whether the bird that you saw is a whooping crane or not, take a look at Texas Whooper Watch: Whooping Crane Look-Alikes.
It was an average breeding year in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP), with 97 nests counted in May producing an estimated 37 fledged whooping cranes counted in August that are headed South on their first migration to Texas. With a relatively low chick recruitment (24) the previous summer (2018), the overall population size did not grow last year, but remained stable at an estimated 504 individuals.
The Whooping Crane migration from WBNP to Aransas NWR is about 2,500 miles in length and can take up to 50 days to complete. It is common for whooping cranes to spend a long period of time in Saskatchewan this time of year, “staging” for fall migration by foraging on abundant agricultural waste grains. Our partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service are actively monitoring whooping cranes in Saskatchewan now and have reported seeing several of our marked birds. As of October 23, 14 marked birds were still north of the border in fall staging areas of Central Saskatchewan, one of them was in North Dakota, one was in South Dakota, one was in Kansas, one was in Oklahoma, and one was on the Blackjack Unit of Aransas NWR. There is a slight chance that some marked cranes are still on their breeding grounds in WBNP, but the lack of cellular towers make them untrackable until they begin to head south.
You might remember last fall and winter was a record wet period and we seem to be headed the other direction this year. This summer and fall was quite dry, with September, typically one of our wettest months of the year, only producing 2.94” of rain at Aransas NWR (2.94” of rain). Thus, much of the standing water that we saw across the Refuge last winter is now gone and freshwater wetlands are shrinking somewhat. Since June, we have recorded 10.94” of rain and much of the whooping crane wintering range is currently in the “moderate drought” category with the NWS 3-month outlook mixed in regards to what the future holds.
Habitat Management at Aransas:
We were able to burn a 3,780-acre unit on Matagorda Island on June 15. The area we burned consists of upland prairies that are adjacent to coastal marsh areas heavily used by whooping cranes. We also burned an additional 4,400+ acres on the Tatton and Blackjack Units. By maintaining coastal prairie habitats in a relatively open, brush-free condition, we provide additional foraging habitat that whooping cranes normally would not be able to access. Summer burns are often provide more effective at suppressing brush species in our prairies than winter burns, thus are an important tool for us at Aransas NWR.
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:
The Trump administration failed to publicly disclose and analyze the harms and impacts of these rules, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
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.
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.
Sometimes good things come in small packages. For example Hords Creek Lake in mid-west Texas is on my mind. Friends of the Wild Whoopers visited this Corps of Engineers (COE) lake recently and we were totally surprised. The purpose for our visit was to evaluate existing and potential “stopover habitat” for wild Whooping Cranes. To our pleasant surprise, we visited a fantastic place. During our 876 mile road trip back to our home office we discussed our habitat survey of all four lakes we visited (Jim Chapman, Ray Roberts, Lewisville and Hords Creek).
During the past two years FOTWW has visited 27 COE Lakes in Texas and all have good programs that focus on natural environmental resources. While all COE lakes we have visited are impressive places, some including Hords Creek Lake are special.
Dorothy McConnell, FOTWW’s Field Assistant summed up our discussion by stating: “Hords Creek Lake is small but has beautiful and bountiful habitat for any visiting wild Whooping Cranes.” The lake’s conservation pool is only 510 acres – small when compared with most COE lakes. But size is only a part of what one must take into account when evaluating lakes for the Whoopers. When considering all the other features including fishing, bird watching, swimming and camping you have a lavish set of resource at Hords Creek Lake.
The diversity of habitats at Hords Creek is impressive from beaver pond wetlands, to abundant shore area shallows and the western section shallow area. The following figures will give readers a better perspective of Hords Creek Lake.
***** 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”