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.
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.
***** 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.
“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.
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.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers’ president, Chester McConnell, will be speaking this Thursday night, Nov. 8, 2018 at the Fort Worth Audubon’s monthly meeting. He will be speaking briefly about the biology of the only wild population of Whooping Cranes on earth. He will also explain the efforts by Friends of the Wild Whoopers to protect, improve and develop “stopover habitats” for these endangered birds.
McConnell spent most of his professional career of 54 years evaluating land use and stream projects, wetland protection, conducting wildlife research, monitoring populations and managing wildlife habitats. Since retiring, he has focused his time on Whooping Cranes, wetland protection and stream protection.
McConnell became interested in Whooping Cranes when he was in the 5th grade. He read a brief article in the Weekly Reader which explained that the Whoopers had returned to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. The article also explained that no one knew where the birds went to in the summer months.
McConnell eventually became a lifetime member of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association. He was appointed as a Trustee and served as President one term. He managed their web page and newsletter (wife was Associate Editor) for 14 years. Currently, McConnell serves as President of Friends of the Wild Whoopers, a private, non-profit group whose mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. He has evaluated potential Whooping Crane habitats on 21 military bases, 8 Indian Reservation and 14 Army Corps of Engineers lakes.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers now works under an official Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate all lakes within the 6 state migration corridor (TX, OK, KS, NE, SD and ND). Services to the military, Indian Reservations and the Corps have been performed at no cost to the recipients.
Time and Location of Meeting
The meeting will begin at 7:30 pm with a short 15 minute business meeting followed by McConnell’s presentation. Meetings are held in Everett Hall, Room 100, in the Research and Education (RES) building at the University of North Texas Health Science Center on 3500 Camp Bowie Boulevard (at Montgomery Street) Fort Worth TX 76107. Use Parking Lot 6 on Clifton Street. Enter the RES building ground floor at the northwest corner of Parking Lot 6.
Estimated Texas Wintering Whooping Crane Population Breaks 500
Survey accuracy improved with shift from December to February timeframe
The first winter after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, an estimated 505 whooping cranes arrived on their Texas wintering grounds after migrating 2,500 miles from their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Each fall the birds make their way back to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding habitats, where they spend the winter. Once they have arrived, wildlife biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey the birds by air and analyze population trends.
Biologists have completed analysis of aerial surveys of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping crane population done last winter. A switch in aircraft the previous winter and a shift to surveying later in the winter when a larger proportion of the population had arrived helped improve accuracy of the counts. Preliminary data analysis indicated 505 whooping cranes, including 49 juveniles, in the primary survey area (approximately 153,950 acres) centered on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, Texas. An additional 21 birds were noted outside the primary survey area during the survey. This marks the 6th year in a row that the population has increased in size and the first time the population has topped the 500 mark.
“Breaking the 500 mark for this wild population is a huge milestone”, stated Amy Lueders, the Service’s Southwest Regional Director. “Seeing this iconic bird continue to expand demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can help a species recover from the brink of extinction. I have to credit our biologists and our partners and local communities who continue to invest so much time and effort to improve our ability to make sure future generations have the chance to marvel at the beauty of these amazing wild birds.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented several small changes that have greatly improved the agency’s capacity to survey the birds. “After two years of testing a shift of our December survey timeframe to later in the winter, we believe our previous survey estimates were likely low given that not all the whooping cranes had completed migration by mid-December. We had indications of a later than expected fall migration over the last several years via migration reports and telemetry data. This is the first year that we have based our winter abundance estimate from a February survey timeframe rather than a December timeframe. It may seem like population numbers jumped more than usual, but in reality we are just capturing a more complete proportion of the population, with most birds having completed migration by early February” stated U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Whooping Crane Coordinator Wade Harrell.
Harrell said biologists will continue to conduct flights in late January and early February for future surveys. He also stated that staff at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge continue to make progress in recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Harvey. “The good news is that the coastal marsh that supports our wintering whooping cranes was not significantly damaged by the hurricane and recovered quickly from any impacts, demonstrating how resilient intact wetland habitats can be.”
Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in North America and are highly endangered. Cranes have been documented to live more than 30 years in the wild. Adults generally reach reproductive age at four or five years, and then lay two eggs, usually rearing only one chick.
More information about the survey and whooping cranes can be found on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge website at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Aransas/ or by calling the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Contact Station at: (361) 349-1181.
To read an in depth report of the survey results in PDF format, click here.
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals, and commitment to public service.