Friends of the Wild Whoopers and Corps of Engineers visit to Lewis and Clark Lake to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”
By Chester McConnell, FOTWW
After receiving dozens of messages from concerned members, Friends of the Wild Whoopers decided to let you know all is OK. The virus has not infected any of our staff. Importantly, however, the virus has caused us to discontinue travel while there is a possibility of us being infected. When we are in the field, we travel an average of 1,500 miles each trip. During this travel we eat in many different restaurants, sleep in different motels each night and meet with about two dozen people. This type of living causes one to take a chance of becoming infected. So we have made the decision to halt our Whooping Crane “stopover habitat” project until conditions have improved. One good factor in this is that we are catching up on administrative responsibilities.
So, I also plan to let you know some details about our most recent joint Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) – Corps of Engineers (COE) “stopover habitat” project that some members have requested. I will begin with some details about our last field trip to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana. During this trip we visited seven COE lakes, met with the staffs of each lake and made long field trips to evaluate potential Whooping Crane “stopover habitats”. We examined some excellent habitats and many sites that could be improved and/or protected with a minimal amount of time and sound management.
The seven lakes we visited on this trip are Lewis and Clark Lake (NE/SD), Lake Francis Case (SD), Lake Sharpe (SD). Oahe Lake (SD/ND), Lake Sakakawea (ND), Fort Peck Lake (MO) and Pipestem Lake (ND). I will start by telling you about our trip to Lewis and Clark Lake. In the near future I plan to write a summary about the other six CO lakes we visited.
Whooping Cranes are facing continuing threats to their habitats that FOTWW is hard at work attempting to bring to a halt. During their two 2,500 miles migration each year the whoopers 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. Currently about half of the population winters off the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where they are not as safe. Continuous development along the coast is taking a serious toll on habitat.
FOTWW believes that the wild Whooping Cranes in the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population are capable of taking care of themselves with two exceptions. They need (1) humans to protect their habitats and (2) humans to stop shooting them. We firmly believe that the COE can do much to help protect and manage many “stopover habitats” on their lakes within the migration corridor.
Whooping Cranes make two 2,500 miles migrations each year. They migrate to and from their winter habitats on the Texas coast to their nesting habitats in northern Canada. During migration Whooping Cranes often stop over on private lands, wildlife areas, lakes, Indian Reservations and some military bases. However, many private lands are being more intensively managed and face various forms of development. And some wetlands are becoming dryer due to global warming.
FOTWW contends that lands and waters on COE lakes, military bases and Indian Reservations within the migration corridor can provide much needed relief. Some 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 species using the same habitats (Figure 1).
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 would be relatively minimal. Importantly any habitat projects deemed to be incompatible with the mission of the agencies involved would not be considered by FOTWW.
FOTWW has completed habitat evaluations on 32 military facilities, 8 Indian Reservations and 35 COE 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.
The COE and FOTWW Memorandum of Understanding allows us to focus on Whooping Crane habitat assessment and management recommendations on lands under the COE’s jurisdiction. We have been determining if any suitable areas could be managed, or appropriately developed to provide stopover habitats for Whooping Cranes. The next step would be to work to encourage appropriate management.
COE lakes within the 7 states migration corridor are likely to become even more important to Whooping Cranes in the near future because of their locations and quality of “stopover habitat”. Lewis and Clark Lake and others that are located in the Whooping Crane migration corridor can be especially valuable. As the crane population increases the migration corridor may also expand in width.
Lewis and Clark Lake is just one of the 35 USACE lakes that FOTWW has evaluated. It is one of the six COE lakes developed on the Missouri River that is within the center of the Whooping Crane migration corridor. Many other migratory bird species and millions of individual use the same migration corridor.
Whooping Cranes normally migrate over or near Lewis and Clark Lake during April – May (northward migration) and fall during October – November (southward migration). They normally stopover to rest late in the afternoon and depart early to mid-morning the following day.
Mostly, during migration, they stopover on lakes, natural wetlands and small ponds on private farms just to rest overnight. Like humans on a long trip they just need a small place to briefly stop, forage, roost and then continue their journey. Proactive techniques implemented by conservation interest can help reduce potential morality that occurs during migration.
We are aware that Lewis and Clark Lake area, has been used by Whooping Cranes and we expect that to continue and increase. United States Geological Survey personnel used location data acquired from 58 unique individuals fitted with platform transmitting terminals that collected global position system locations. Radio-tagged birds provided 2,158 stopover sites over 10 migrations and 5 years (2010–14) using individual Whooping Cranes. Whooping Cranes were observed in the lake vicinity several times. Also they have been recorded on several Indian Reservations along the lake.
FOTWW Wildlife Biologist Chester McConnell and FOTWW Field Assistant Dorothy McConnell visited Lewis and Clark Lake on September 10, 2019 to assess potential “stopover habitats” for Whooping Cranes. David Hoover, Conservation Biologist, Kansas City, MO, COE made arrangements for our trip. FOTWW appreciates all involved with making preparations for a productive and enjoyable visit.
FOTWW always reviews lake management documents to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of the project. Where there is a healthy, productive environment with a diversity of plants and animals provides some evidence that the same area could be beneficial to Whooping Cranes. A summary of our review of COE documents follows:
Lewis and Clark Lake is a major reservoir in South Dakota and Nebraska located on the on the Missouri River. It has is a 31,400 surface acre reservoir during maximum pool. It is located on the border of Nebraska and South Dakota on the Missouri River. The lake is approximately 28 miles in length with over 90 miles of shoreline.
In addition to providing recreational benefits for the region, Lewis and Clark Lake also provides drinking water to many communities located both in and outside of the watershed boundaries. The average annual precipitation in the watershed is 20 to 21 inches of which 77 percent usually falls in April through September. Land use in the watersheds is primarily cropland and grazing. Row crops and hay are the main crops on cultivated lands. Whooping Cranes have plenty to forage on when stopping over.
Habitat changes with the rise and fall of lake levels and affects the number of birds attracted to the reservoir in any given year. FOTWW’s review identifies how important the Lewis and Clark Lake complex is to a large variety of wildlife and fish. Bird watchers frequent Lewis and Clark as a prime area to visit. Bald eagles use the lake and nearby land as favorite habitat. Observant visitors can also spot wild turkeys, deer, coyotes and a large variety of other small birds and mammals.
Hunting is allowed on Lewis and Clark Lake property. Substantial hunting opportunities are available at Lewis and Clark SRA, which include upland game, big game and waterfowl. The lake property provided hunting opportunities for pheasant, quail, doves, deer and wild turkey.
The species listed in the federal list of threatened and endangered species are the bald eagle, which is listed as threatened, the American burying beetle, least tern, piping plover and whooping cranes which are listed as endangered.
In some areas of the lake, excessive sediment has resulted in problems. A project titled “Lewis and Clark Initial Watershed Assessment” has been evaluating the situation. The goal of the project is to locate critical portions of the watersheds draining to Lewis and Clark Lake to be targeted for detailed analysis to be conducted in cooperation with the state of Nebraska beginning in 2004.
The Keya Paha, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Ponca HUCs are all portions of the drainage that enter Lewis and Clark Lake on the Missouri River downstream of Fort Randall Dam. These drainages in combination with the Niobrara watershed in Nebraska drain approximately 10,158,000 acres, of which approximately 2,016,000 acres are located within South Dakota. Loads of suspended solids from these drainages have impaired recreation in Lewis and Clark Lake through sedimentation resulting in a reduction in the number of “useable” lake acres. The goal of this assessment is to locate critical regions in these drainages so that a more detailed study may be conducted to determine exact sources of sediment loads as well as the potential restoration alternatives.
Importantly, some of the threatened and endangered species that use Lewis and Clark Lake use the sediment bars and islands as nesting and roosting habitats.
Notably, during our review of several USACE and USFWS documents we detected only minor information about endangered Whooping Crane within COE documents. Friends of the Wild Whoopers has urged project staff to coordinate with their Omaha District officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a management plan for endangered 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.