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.

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.



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


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


Whooping Cranes and Ft. Rivière Tremblante (1791-98)

Note: This is an abridged version of “Whooping Cranes and Ft. Rivière Tremblante (1791-98)”, a 2017 article published in the Saskatchewan Archaeology Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 4.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks David Meyer, Hugh T MacKie and the Saskatchewan Archaeology Society for allowing us to publish a condensed version of their article.

Whooping Cranes and Ft. Rivière Tremblante (1791-98)

by David Meyer* and Hugh T. MacKie** (January, 2018)

*Professor Emeritus
Department of Archaeology & Anthropology
University of Saskatchewan
55 Campus Drive
Saskatoon, SK S7N 5B1
(306) 966-4178

**Box 1044
Hudson Bay, SK
S0E 0Y0


In 1968, whooping crane skeletal remains were excavated at Ft. Rivière Tremblante, a North West Company fur trade post located in the upper Assiniboine River valley of present day east central Saskatchewan (Figure 1).   This trading post was built by Robert Grant in 1791 and occupied through to at least 1798 (Morton 1942:102-104). During much of its operation, the master of the post was Cuthbert Grant Sr. who transformed the establishment into a substantial regional centre.

These whooping crane bones are one of only two such archaeological recoveries on the Canadian plains. They are described here and placed in the context of the life ways of the trading post occupants, as well as of the indigenous peoples of the region and the habitat occupied by these cranes in east central Saskatchewan and adjacent Manitoba in historical times.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 1. Map of the northern plains showing the location of Ft. Rivière Tremblante in eastern Saskatchewan.

Ft. Rivière Tremblante Excavations

Hugh MacKie (1967), then an archaeology and anthropology student at the University of Saskatchewan, undertook the excavation of Ft. Rivière Tremblante in the summer of 1967. At that time, his core crew members consisted of Dean Clark, Donald Welsh and David Meyer (MacKie 1968b:105). This excavation continued in the summer of 1968 and led to the exposure of a complex set of palisade trenches, building outlines, fireplace remains, and cellar pits (MacKie 1968a).

Large numbers of faunal remains of a variety of species were recovered in the course of this excavation (Musser 1995). These indicate that although bison meat from the adjacent plains was prominent in the foodstuffs, smaller animals, birds and fish from the vicinity of the post were regularly taken.

Whooping Crane Skeletal Elements

At the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Dr. George Lammers with the assistance of a student, Jack Dubois, identified the mammal and fish bones from Ft. Rivière Tremblante. In 1969, however, in the absence of a suitable comparative collection, Lammers forwarded the assemblage of 361 bird bones to Dr. Paul Parmalee at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Dr. Parmalee (1969:3) identified several of these bones as whooping crane, including a femur, a tibiotarsus and a tarsometatarsus (e.g. Figure 2). Associated with the latter and also accepted as whooping crane were a metatarsal I and 11 toe bones. In short, the complete (skeletal) leg of a whooping crane, including the foot bones, was recovered. As well, five Sandhill crane elements were present.

Whooping Cranes
Figure 2. Casts of whooping crane skeletal elements excavated at Ft. Rivière Tremblante: upper, tarsometatarsus; lower, femur (photograph courtesy of Mark Peck, Royal Ontario Museum).

Regional Whooping Crane Observations

Nineteenth century observations indicate that the summer range of the whooping crane in the prairies provinces was concentrated on the aspen parklands and adjacent fescue grasslands (Allen 1952:19-25;Johns 2005:2-3). In what is now southeastern Saskatchewan, one of the earliest records is that of Henry Youle Hind in 1858. Travelling west, just south of the Qu’Appelle valley(Figure 1), his party encountered these cranes in the Whitewood area:

The white or whooping crane (Grus Americana)
was first seen to-day. This beautiful bird is common
in the Qu’appelle Valley and in the Touchwood Hill
range. It is a dangerous antagonist when wounded,
striking with unerring aim and great force with its
powerful bill (Hind 1971:316).

Between 1880 and 1924 a number of whooping crane sightings were recorded in southeastern Saskatchewan, and north through Yorkton and area (Houston 1972;Hjertaas1994:101).

Farther north on the east side of the province, there was also an observation in the Roscoe area, dating to 1932 (Hjertaas 1994:108), as well as accounts from several locations in the Saskatchewan River delta, a huge expanse of small lakes, marshes, and leveed stream courses (Figure 1). Two of these observations were made in the Red Earth area in the 1920s (Hjertaas 1994:107;Meyer et al. 1974) while another record of whooping cranes in the western portion of the delta dates to about 1940. This was in the Pine Bluff area, west of Cumberland House (Hjertaas 1994:107).

In the eastern half of the Saskatchewan River delta, whooping cranes occupied the Moose Lake area. Here, Tom Lamb recounted the presence of whooping cranes in the first decade of the 1900s:

The long-legged whooping cranes (now close to
extinction) then sprinkled the marshes with hundreds
of their stately, snowy silhouettes and the Crees
hunted them both for food and their beautiful
plumage (Stowe 1982:33).

Whooping Cranes in Cree Culture

Through the late 19th and into the early 20th century, the Goose Dance, niskisimowin, was the ceremony that dominated the spring gathering or rendezvous of the Crees of the Saskatchewan River delta and environs (Meyer 1985:82-83, 1991; Meyer and Thistle 1995:424-425). As described to Meyer by Red Earth elders in the 1970s, this ceremony, despite its name, was dedicated to the spirits of not only the geese but also all the other waterfowl of the marshes:

in traditional Cree culture it was held that all
animals and plants were physical manifestations
of spirit beings, known as the âtayôhkanak [plural].
It is important, therefore, for the hunter to
maintain a harmonious relationship with the
spirit beings representing the various food animals.
One other way of showing ones respect, and love
for the spirit beings of certain species was to hold
ceremonies in their honour (Meyer 1991:113).

At Moose Lake, this spring ceremony was even more all encompassing. It welcomed back not only the waterfowl, but all of the returning birds, and the dancers engaged in “animated simulations of songsters and swallows to those of stately whooping cranes” (Stowe 1982:28). In short, the âtayôhkan of each of the returning bird species was honoured, including that of the whooping cranes.

As has been noted, the whooping cranes were taken for food and, as well, their eggs were gathered to be eaten. However, as Tom Lamb indicated, their feathers were also collected, presumably for headdresses or other ornamentation (Stowe 1982:33). A much older historical record provides information on another use: “The wing-bone of this bird is converted by the natives into a kind of flute” (Swainson and Richardson 1831:372). This account is based on Dr. John Richardson’s observations when at Ft. Carlton in 1827 (Houston 1984). Flutes and whistles of the long bones of large birds, especially eagles, provided an important accompaniment to religious ceremonies (e.g. Mandelbaum 1940:269).


The historical records indicate that whooping cranes nested throughout the aspen parklands of eastern Saskatchewan and north into the marshland of the Saskatchewan River delta. Therefore, the bird whose bones were deposited at Ft. Rivière Tremblante could have occupied a nearby summer territory or it could have been taken during its migration to or from a more northerly nesting area.

Presumably, these whooping crane bones relate to a bird that was obtained during a hunting event and brought back to the post to be consumed. In this regard, Parmalee (1969:2) noted: “A few elements, such as the whooping crane femur, exhibited cut marks which are the result of the butchering process.” However, MacKie (1973:73) has noted that a “quantity of cut or ringed and snapped upper wing bones of large bird species [swans] were uncovered” in the course of the Ft. Rivière Tremblante excavations. Therefore, the whooping crane long bones could also have been retained to be fashioned into beads or flutes and whistles by indigenous residents of the post, such as Cuthbert Grant’s wife and relatives.

Only one other archaeological site in Saskatchewan has produced whooping crane bones; this is the Fox Valley burial, which Heather Milsom (2012) has discussed in her masters thesis. The Fox Valley remains consisted of “the proximal and distal ends of a left ulna and eight smaller avian long bone fragments” (Milsom 2012:75). These were associated with a secondary bundle burial which included the remains of at least four people (Milsom 2012:75) and was dated to 2290±40 B.P. (Beta-177964) (Milsom 2012:63).   It is quite possible that a complete wing of a whooping crane was interred with this burial.

More broadly in North America, Parmalee (1967:155-157) reviewed the occurrence of whooping crane bones in archaeological sites in the Midwestern and southern United States. Similarly, with reference to the latter regions, Katherine Martin (1976:15-16) has discussed two examples of precontact flutes made from whooping crane long bones. For the plains, Ubelaker and Wedel (1975) have considered the indigenous use of bird bones, including a reference to whooping cranes, as known archaeologically. This included the use of wings as fans (Ubelaker and Wedel 1975:451), as may have been the case with the Fox Valley burial.


Whooping crane leg bones, likely from the same bird, were recovered in the course of the 1968 excavation season at Ft. Rivière Tremblante. Historically, the summer range of the whooping cranes included the aspen parkland of eastern Saskatchewan and extended north into the Saskatchewan River delta in the southern boreal forest. Therefore, the Ft. Rivière Tremblante individual may have been taken in its local breeding territory or during its migration through the area. The whooping crane was well known to the indigenous peoples of this region and effective hunting techniques were practiced. While the cranes and their eggs were a source of food, they were also a source of material for important ceremonial objects such as flutes made from long bones and fans fashioned from wings.


Picking up the threads of this research episode, dating to half a century ago, has involved a good deal of sleuthing. Numerous individuals at several institutions have been very helpful in this regard. Mark Peck at the Royal Ontario Museum provided a photograph of casts of two of the whooping crane bones – and the crucial information that Dr. Paul Parmalee of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) was the individual who had identified these bones. In 2015, Ms. Dee Ann Watt of the latter museum informed Meyer that the bones were not held there, but noted that Dr. Parmalee had left the ISM in the early 1970s for employment at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Ms. Watt suggested that Meyer contact Dr. Walter Klippel at the latter institution. In turn, Dr. Klippel instructed Meyer to contact Mr. Gerald Dinkins at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture. There, Mr. Dinkins located the Ft. Rivière Tremblante whooping crane bones as well as Dr. Parmalee’s report on the avian material. Clearly, therefore, Mark Peck, Dee Ann Watt, Walter Klippel, and Gerald Dinkins have been of great assistance and we extend our gratitude to them.

Closer to home, we extend thanks to Dr. Stuart Houston for pointing out appropriate published accounts relating to whooping cranes. Special mention must be made of Les Oystryk who thoughtfully informed Meyer of Tom Lamb’s observations of whooping cranes in the Moose Lake region. Meyer also appreciates helpful discussion with his former graduate student, Jill Musser, and the information that she has provided.

References Cited

Allen, Robert Porter
1952 The Whooping Crane. Research Report No. 3 of the National Audubon Society. New York, New York.

Hind, Henry Y.
1971 Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858. Hurtig, Edmonton.

Hjertaas, Dale G.
1994 Summer and Breeding Records of the Whooping Crane in Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 52(2):99-115

Houston, C, Stuart
1972 Early Whooping Crane Nest records Near Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 30(3):152-153.

1984 Arctic Ordeal: the Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin 1820-22. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston and Montreal.

Johns, Brian
2005 Whooping Crane Recovery – a North American Success Story. Biodiversity 6(3):2-6.

MacKie, Hugh T.
1967 Preliminary Report – 1967: Archaeological Excavation of Fort Riviere Tremblante (N.W.C. 1791-98). Manuscript on file, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina, Saskatchewan.

1968a Preliminary Report – 1968: Archaeological Excavation of Fort Riviere Tremblante (N.W.C. 1791-98). Manuscript on file, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Regina, Saskatchewan.

1968b Excavaton of Fort Riviere Tremblante (N.W.C. 1791-98). Blue Jay 26(2):101-105.

1973 Archaeology of Ft. Rivière Tremblante. Monograph manuscript in the author’s files.

Martin, Katherine Lee Hall
1976 Bone Flutes and Whistles from Archaeological Sites in Eastern North America. Unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Mandelbaum, David G.
1940 The Plains Cree.  The American Museum of Natural History Anthropological Papers, Vol. 37. New York.

Meyer, David
1985 The Red Earth Crees, 1860-1960.  Canadian Ethnology Service Mercury
Series Paper No. 100.  National Museum of Man, Ottawa, Ontario.

1991 The Goose Dance in Swampy Cree Religion.  Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society 33(1):107-118.

Meyer, David, Silas Head, and Donald McKay
1974 Indian Bird Identification and Whooping Cranes at Red Earth, Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 32(3):168-171.

Meyer, David and Paul Thistle
1995 Saskatchewan River Rendezvous Centres and Trading Posts: Continuity in a Cree Social Geography.  Ethnohistory 42(3):403-444.

Milsom, Heather Ashley
2012 A Paleopathological and Mortuary Analysis of Three Precontact Burials from Southern Saskatchewan. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Morton, Arthur Silver
1942 The Posts of the Fur-Traders on the Upper Assiniboine River. Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Third Series, Section II, Vol. XXXVI.

Musser, Jill
1995 Preliminary Results of Faunal Analysis from Fort Riviere Tremblante
(EiMk-1). On file, Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Parmalee, Paul W.
1967 Additional Noteworthy Records of Birds from Archaeological Sites. The Wilson Bulletin 79(2):155-162.

1969 Birds from the Fort Riviere Tremblante Site, Saskatchewan, Canada. Report on file at the McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Stowe, Leland
1982 The Last great Frontiersman: the Remarkable Adventures of Tom Lamb. Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, Ontario.

Swainson, William and John Richardson
1831 Fauna Boreali-Americana, or the Zoology of the Northern Parts of British America. Part Second, the Birds. John Murray, London.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. and Waldo R. Wedel
1975 Bird Bones, Burials, and Bundles in Plains Archaeology. American Antiquity 40(4):444-452.