By Gene Pawlik and Doug GarmanJuly 10, 2018
Washington -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced today the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Friends of the Wild Whoopers to assist in the recovery of endangered whooping cranes.
Per the MOU, USACE and Friends of the Wild Whoopers will jointly assess whooping crane migration stopover habitat at USACE water resources development projects. The assessments will be used by USACE to develop work plans that maintain and improve existing habitat and create additional habitat for this critically endangered bird as part of USACE Environmental Stewardship Program.
The whooping crane is one of the most endangered bird species in the world and is commonly seen as America's symbol of conservation. Standing 5 feet tall with a wing span of 7 feet, it is the largest bird in North America.
Once fairly common, the species was reduced to just 16 birds by 1943. Market hunting and indiscriminate shooting along with habitat loss led to the decline of the species. Conservation efforts in the United States and Canada have seen the population increase to an estimated 431 birds in 2017.
The Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes nest and rear their young in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta/Northwest Territories, Canada, during spring and summer. After the chicks fledge, they migrate 2,500 miles through six states in the midsection of the United States to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas where they spend the winter.
Cranes must stop 15-20 times to rest and feed during their migration. Radio telemetry conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and direct field observation has documented many times that these migration stopovers are made on USACE-managed water resource development projects in the migration corridor.
"Our efforts with USACE will allow us to focus on whooping crane habitat assessment and management recommendations on lands under USACE jurisdiction," said Chester McConnell, president of Friends of the Wild Whoopers. "We are looking to determine if any suitable areas could be managed or appropriately developed to provide migration stopover habitat for whooping cranes. Additional habitat may be needed to support the migration, especially in drought years when surface water is reduced and areas adjacent to USACE multipurpose reservoirs become even more important.
"Ensuring that ongoing management of these areas is conducive to whooping crane use during migration is the primary goal of our partnership," added McConnell.
Whooping cranes from the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population have consistently been documented using areas at several USACE-managed projects within the established 2,500-mile-long by 200-mile-wide primary migration corridor according to USACE officials.
"The annual migrations of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes cross portions of our Omaha, Kansas City, Tulsa, Fort Worth and Galveston districts," said Jeremy Crossland, Land Uses and Natural Resources Program Manager at USACE Headquarters here.
"There have been a few rare instances where whooping cranes were observed on USACE project lands outside the established migration corridor. Our management and restoration efforts on these areas provide important feeding and resting areas for whooping cranes during their migration. These efforts typically provide benefits to numerous other species of native wildlife including waterfowl and shorebirds," Crossland added.
USACE biologists and team members with Friends of the Wild Whoopers have begun to make assessments of areas that whooping cranes have traditionally used and are assessing habitat management actions to maintain these areas and improve additional habitat.
"Our preliminary assessments of areas on USACE-managed lands has confirmed our initial belief that these areas do currently provide important migration stopover habitat and with some minor habitat management actions those benefits can be increased," said McConnell.
This partnership is consistent with USACE's responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act, which states that federal agencies may use their existing authorities to assist in the recovery of listed species said Crossland.