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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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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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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We’re losing our wetlands

“Wetlands provide us with water, they protect us from floods, droughts and other disasters, they provide food and livelihoods to millions of people, they support rich biodiversity, and they store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Yet, the value of wetlands remains largely unrecognized by policy and decision makers.” (The Global Wetland Outlook, Ramsar Convention on Wetlands)

Wetlands in Saskatchewan and the U.S. are being lost and that’s a big problem

The world’s freshwater supplies are threatened as never before says Jay Famigletti, Executive Director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Global Institute for Water Security. World-wide, wetlands are being destroyed at 3 times the rate of forests (35% losses since 1970) and one-quarter of wetland plants and animals are at risk of extinction. Improved water management and governance are essential if we want to ensure future water and food security.

When the glaciers receded after the last Ice Age, they left behind an array of shallow depressions providing the Prairie Pothole Region with a wealth of small wetlands storing water and providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals. In the past, farmers worked around the wetlands, but large farms, massive equipment, and a drive for greater efficiency and productivity have led to farmers draining the potholes.

There’s a strong sentiment among landowners that they can do what they want on their own land and that they should be applauded for their contributions to feeding the world. However, the farmers’ short-term interests are at odds with the long-term interests of the general public. Draining wetlands leads to flooding downstream, increases erosion, lowers the water table, and reduces the supply of water in times of drought. It also fails to recognize wetlands’ important role in carbon sequestration.

To read more about Saskatchewan’s wetland losses, click here.

With the continual loss of wetlands in Saskatchewan where the whooping cranes stage during their annual migration south, the article shows why saving stopover habitat along the 6 state flyway is so important.

wetlands
Large ditch draining a 100 acre wetland with bush clearing to turn the area into cultivated land. Photo courtesy of the Citizens Environmental Alliance – Saskatchewan

Effects of wetland losses on one species, the Whooping Crane

By Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Since 1941, the Aransas Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP) of Whooping Cranes has increased from 15 birds to an estimated 526 as of winter 2018. Despite the increasing population trend, the whooping cranes of the AWBP remain defenseless against two depredations: habitat destruction and gunshot. During the 200-year period from 1780 to 1980, wetland acreage in the whooping crane migration corridor within the United States declined by over 14,826,000 acres  (6 million ha).  The whooping crane migration corridor in the United States includes the six states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Whooping Cranes migrate 2,500 miles two times each year through the six states. They migrate from their Wood Buffalo National Park nesting area in Canada to their winter habitat in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico coast. During each migration, the cranes must “stopover” 15 to 30 times to rest and feed.  Regrettably loss of stopover habitats continues.

The full extent of threats to and loss of Whooping Crane stopover habitats within the migration corridor are difficult to quantify, but real. These habitats are being diminished and degraded due to a variety of factors, including intensified management on agricultural lands, construction of wind energy facilities and power lines, wetland drainage and reduction in river flows.  Changes in agricultural programs are continuing to further reduce the stopover habitats available for whooping cranes.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan (Canadian Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005) includes numerous references that describe various wetlands used as stopover sites. Important migration stopover sites in the United States include Cheyenne Bottoms State Waterfowl Management Area and Quivira NWR, Kansas; the Platte River bottoms between Lexington and Denman, Nebraska; and Salt Plains NWR, Oklahoma. These large sites have been designated as critical habitat for conservation of the species.  Critical habitat is defined in the U.S.Endangered Species Act as habitat that contains those physical or biological features, essential to the conservation of the species, which may require special management considerations or protection. Importantly, other stopover areas have also been documented, both large (e.g., Audubon NWR and Long Lake NWR in North Dakota;) and small. Moreover, whooping cranes are not site-specific each migration and rarely use the same wetland basins year to year.  For these reasons, Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) emphasizes that numerous other smaller stopover sites are also essential to ensure diverse opportunities for potential stopover use along the migration corridor

The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan calls for the protection of existing wetlands as whooping crane stopover areas and the enhancement of those wetlands that have been degraded by woody plant encroachment, silting, and/or draining within the migratory corridor. More specifically, the Recovery Plan spells out the need to: “Ensure long-term protection of migration stopover sites; Work with landowners and managers to ensure migration habitat remains suitable for cranes: Pursue stewardship agreements and conservation easements when needed, focusing on providing wetland mosaics”.

Actions by FOTWW to prevent wetland losses

Unfortunately, the Recovery Plan offered no specific entity to protect and manage potential stopover sites. FOTWW emphasizes that a realistic action plan should be developed to name specific agencies to protect and manage existing stopover wetlands and to create new ones. Within the United States’ portion of the migratory corridor, FOTWW could find no ongoing concerted effort that focuses on protection or enhancement of many stopover areas. Private conservation groups and government agencies have played a significant role in protecting wetlands used by whooping cranes, waterfowl, and many other wildlife species throughout the migration corridor. Funds from the sale of Duck Stamps have helped protect over 6 million acres (2.4 million ha)but many of those are managed for waterfowl in ways that may not be suitable for cranes (e.g., presence of tall emergent vegetation around the perimeter or deeper water that would deter cranes from roosting).

To address this gap in information and activity, FOTWW initiated a survey of entities with large land holdings that could possibly provide additional stopover areas. The project consisted of three phases: U.S. military bases, Indian Reservations and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lake properties within the migration corridor. As of December 2018 FOTWW has evaluated potential “stopover habitats” 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. FOTWW has prepared management reports for each area visited describing habitat management practices needed. Currently FOTWW is continuing to evaluate Corps of Engineer lakes and associate lands.  The most expensive part of establishing or improving habitat is land cost. If projects can be accomplished on government lands and Indian Reservations, the cost will be relatively minimal.

***** 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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