Wetlands, Watersheds and Whooping Cranes: Wetland Habitat Restoration in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) remains one of the most imperiled species in the United States. This Endangered species once ranged throughout the plains and prairies of central North America. It bred in central Canada and the north-central United States and wintered on the Gulf Coast, parts of the Atlantic coast, and as far south as northern and central Mexico. But by the early 1940s habitat loss and unregulated hunting caused the population to shrink to just over 20 birds in the world.
Fortunately, conservation efforts have led to a limited recovery. By 2011, there were an estimated 437 birds in the wild and more than 165 in captivity. Today, the largest and only naturally occurring flock breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada, on the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. These birds migrate through the central and western U.S. to their wintering grounds at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Although we have made great strides in bringing Whooping Cranes back from the brink of extinction, the situation remains critical. Much of the conservation efforts have focused on the breeding and wintering grounds. Just as important are the areas where Whooping Cranes stop to rest and ‘refuel’ during migration. For the Wood Buffalo National Park breeding population, partners are working to ensure that they have quality habitat along their 2,500 mile journey (over 5,000 miles round-trip).
The Rainwater Basin region of Nebraska lies along this migratory corridor. This wetland complex contains many playa wetlands scattered throughout a 21-county area in the southern part of the state. These shallow, ephemeral ponds provide resting and feeding habitat during migration for millions of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wetland species. Historically bison and wildfire kept the wetlands open, with plants growing only during dry summer months and droughts. With bison gone and wildfires controlled, we now need other ways to maintain habitat for the species that rely on these areas.
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