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
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
Share

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.

 

Share

Doug Leier: A call out to keep an eye out for whooping cranes

West Fargo ~

whooping cranes
Every year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a call for people to report sightings of whooping crane, like this pair spotted near Linton, N.D., on Thursday, March 29, 2018. N.D. Game and Fish Department photo

The extended winter or late spring has delayed some migrations, and even though two whooping cranes were verified in North Dakota on March 29, it will probably still be later April before all these birds have worked their way through the state. Whenever that occurs, it’s likely that I will have gone another year without seeing one of these endangered birds alive in the wild.

As a biologist, I practice what I preach and don’t intentionally go out looking for whooping cranes as they make their way from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. That’s a distance of about 2,500 miles each way.

Every year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put out a call for people to report sightings of these striking white birds, as a fair number of the 300 or so birds in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population end up on the ground in North Dakota.

Biologists receive several dozen reports a year, and in spring, the first reports typically come in the first week of April, which probably won’t be the case this year.

Within two or three weeks in spring, the birds all move through North Dakota, but in fall the migration isn’t as urgent and reports can come in from late September stretching into late November, depending on weather.

Over the next few weeks as that spring migration occurs, some lucky people will get a chance to report sightings so the birds can be tracked.

These magnificent birds are regarded as unmistakable. I’ve seen them displayed in museums and they stand about five feet tall and have a wingspan of about seven feet from tip to tip.

They are bright white with black wing tips, which are visible only when the wings are outspread. In flight, they extend their long necks straight forward, while their long, slender legs extend out behind the tail. Whooping cranes typically migrate singly, or in groups of two to three birds and may be associated with sandhill cranes.

Other white birds, such as snow geese, swans and egrets, are often mistaken for whooping cranes.

The most common misidentification is pelicans, because their wingspan is similar and they tuck their pouch in flight, leaving a silhouette similar to a crane when viewed from below.

Anyone sighting whoopers should not disturb them, but record the date, time, location and the birds’ activity. Observers also should look closely for and report colored bands which may occur on one or both legs. Whooping cranes have been marked with colored leg bands to help determine their identity.

Whooping crane sightings should be reported to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offices at Lostwood, (701) 848-2466, or Long Lake, (701) 387-4397, national wildlife refuges; the state Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, (701) 328-6300, or to local game wardens across the state.

Reports help biologists locate important whooping crane habitat areas, monitor marked birds, determine survival and population numbers and identify times and migration routes.

To read original article, click here.

Share

Indian Reservations have quality Whooping Crane “Stopover habitats”

Indian Reservations have quality Whooping Crane “Stopover habitats”
by Pam Bates, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

Indian Reservations
Figure 1. Two adults and one juvenile Whooping Cranes stop to rest and feed during their 2,500 mile migration between their Canadian nesting site and Aransas Refuge winter habitat on Texas coast.

Indian Reservations in the Great Plains Region have an abundance of quality Whooping Crane “stopover habitats” according to Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW). Stopover habitats are ponds (stock dams) or other wetlands where the Whoopers stop to rest and feed for one or two nights during their two 2,500 mile migrations each year. Stopover habitats along their migration corridor are equally essential to the survival of Whooping Cranes as are their Canadian nesting sites and Aransas Refuge wintering habitats on the Texas coast.

FOTWW’s mission continues

FOTWW is continuing its mission to identify, protect, enhance and develop existing or potential “stopover habitats” for the endangered wild cranes. Our wildlife biologist Chester McConnell, with the assistance of reservation biologists, recently completed a survey of tribal trust lands in the Great Plains Region. Seven Indian reservations involving 3.8 million acres of trust lands were visited. During the surveys McConnell instructs reservation biologist on habitat management practices necessary to make ponds/wetlands acceptable to Whooping Cranes.

Stopover ponds/wetlands on Indian Reservations

McConnell and reservation biologists identified over 1,700 potential stopover ponds/wetlands on Indian reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota within the Whooping Crane migration corridor. The biologists estimated that 75 percent of the 1,700 ponds would provide good “stopover habitat”. That equates to about 1,275 ponds.

Indian Reservations
Figure 2. Numerous wildlife species use the same habitats as wild Whooping Cranes.

FOTWW’s biologist explained that if needed some of the remaining 25 percent of ponds could be managed to become acceptable stopover areas with low cost management improvements. FOTWW believes, however, that there are currently enough stopover ponds within the 3.8 million acres of trust lands if their current management condition is maintained.

Continued need to secure stopover ponds

Importantly, there is a continued need for more secure stopover ponds throughout the remainder of the Whooping Crane migration corridor. FOTWW recently completed another survey of these habitats on U.S. military bases in five states. Approximately 100 quality ponds were identified with 65 percent needing minor management. Importantly, more ponds on some military bases could become stopover sites if the need becomes apparent.

Whooping Cranes migrate between northern Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park nesting grounds and their Aransas National Wildlife Refuge wintering area on the Texas coast two times each year. During each of the 2,500 mile migrations the cranes stopover on wetlands/ponds/lakes and streams about 10 to 15 times. There they remain for a day or two to rest and feed. Regrettably, many “stopover habitats” are being destroyed or degraded on private property due to a variety of intensified developments.

Stopover sites important for survival of the whooping cranes

Insuring that sufficient areas are available with suitable conditions as stopover sites is important for survival of the species. Proactive approaches by land owners and managers can help reduce potential mortality that occurs during migration.

FOTWW is concentrating on the wild Whooping Crane migration corridor because we believe this important part of the total management effort deserves much more attention.

***** 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.

 friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
Share