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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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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Large Groups of Whooping Cranes in Saskatchewan

Brian Johns, Ret. Canadian Wildlife Service, had heard reports of birders seeing groups of whooping cranes numbering just over 100 or more, gathering on their staging grounds in Saskatchewan, Canada. So Wednesday morning, he decided to grab his camera, hop in his vehicle and go look for whoopers. As luck would have it, he would not to be disappointed. Brian was able to see 151 whooping cranes in this one field and captured the moment in the photo below. The group of cranes was so spread out in the field that the photo only shows a little more than 100 of the cranes in the photo. Can you imagine seeing 151 whooping cranes in one field? That is nearly 30% of the entire wild flock!

Whooping Cranes
Over 100 Whooping Cranes in one field. Photo courtesy of Brian Johns

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Whooping Cranes in Saskatchewan-Spring 2018

Kim and Val Mann are avid birders and lucky enough to live within the migration corridor in Saskatchewan. Every spring and fall, the two of them enjoy the offerings that the grid roads have to offer and hope they will be lucky enough to see a whooping crane or two. When they are lucky to see and photograph whooping cranes, they are kind enough to send us some of their photos to share with all of you. This spring was no different. While out for a “drive about” on Monday, they saw some of our beloved whooping cranes who are still migrating through Saskatchewan on their way to Wood Buffalo National Park.

Whooping Cranes in Saskatchewan
Photo #6846 – Whooping Crane pair feeding Monday afternoon. Photo by Kim and Val Mann ~ Click photo to view at full size.

Kim states that “two Whooping Cranes with a flock of Sandhill Cranes were sighted south of Regina on Monday. The cranes were about a mile from the road. In addition to being extremely far, the heat haze/shimmer was terrible. Long range telephoto camera lenses are extremely susceptible to this effect – the resulting photos look like one is looking through warped glass fragments. The background in Photo 6846 shows the effect of extreme heat haze. The photos of the crane pair have limited cropping to reduce the heat haze effects.”

Whooping cranes in Saskatchewan
Photo #7103 – whooping crane pair walking in the farmer’s field Tuesday morning. Photo by Kim and Val Mann.

Kim and Val returned to the same area on Tuesday morning to see if the Whooping Cranes were still there. “The cranes were still there but still very far from any roads. Heat haze was bad and the wind had picked up and was quite strong.”

Kim says that “Seeing Whooping Cranes during spring migration was amazing!”

Photo #7271 – the pair roosting on a large dirt pile by the shore. The grey “sky” is actually dust/dirt blowing off the ground. Photo by Kim and Val Mann ~ Click photo to view at full size.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Kim and Val for sharing their photos and experience of seeing the whooping cranes in Saskatchewan. We enjoyed their photos and story this spring as much as we have always enjoyed them in past posts that they have shared with us. We hope you enjoy them as well.

Be sure to click on the photos to view them at full size.

***** 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.

wind farm
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org

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