Soldiers flying a Nebraska Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter above the Spring Creek division of the Brush Creek fire drop water from their 2,000-gallon bucket June 25, 2021 in Holt County, Nebraska. The Team’s work is integral to not only improving crane habitat, but also deconflicting the NEARNG’s aviation mission from wildlife.
1 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Soldiers flying a Nebraska Army National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter above the Spring Creek division of the Brush Creek fire drop water from their 2,000-gallon bucket June 25, 2021 in Holt County, Nebraska. The Team’s work is integral to not only improving crane habitat, but also deconflicting the NEARNG’s aviation mission from wildlife. (Photo Credit: NE ARNG) VIEW ORIGINAL
Graphic "routes"
2 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Predictive maps assist the Nebraska Army National Guard and the USFWS in comparing potential flight paths in relation to the likelihood of encountering migrating whooping cranes (red and orange colors represent higher quality whooping crane habitat; yellow and green colors represent poorer quality habitat). (Photo Credit: NE ARNG) VIEW ORIGINAL
Powerlines
3 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The Team buried several miles of powerlines; photos indicate before and after this habitat enhancement. Powerlines are one of the primary threats to crane survival during migration. (Photo Credit: NE ARNG) VIEW ORIGINAL
Disking sandbars with a tracked-tractor and disking implement on the Back-Bar easement and the Crane Trust’s Mormon Island property. The Sandhill Cranes in the photo landed during this operation.
4 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Disking sandbars with a tracked-tractor and disking implement on the Back-Bar easement and the Crane Trust’s Mormon Island property. The Sandhill Cranes in the photo landed during this operation. (Photo Credit: NE ARNG) VIEW ORIGINAL
Field biologists observed behavior of five adult Whooping Cranes, including 1 telemetry-marked bird, using flooded shallow marsh habitat at Sacramento-Wilcox State Wildlife Management Area.  This study is helping us better understand how Whooping Cranes use various components of the landscape and also represents a cooperative effort between the Nebraska Army National Guard and the Crane Trust with support from additional partners (USFWS, USGS, Canadian Wildlife Service and others).
5 / 5 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Field biologists observed behavior of five adult Whooping Cranes, including 1 telemetry-marked bird, using flooded shallow marsh habitat at Sacramento-Wilcox State Wildlife Management Area. This study is helping us better understand how Whooping Cranes use various components of the landscape and also represents a cooperative effort between the Nebraska Army National Guard and the Crane Trust with support from additional partners (USFWS, USGS, Canadian Wildlife Service and others). (Photo Credit: D. Baasch, Crane Trust) VIEW ORIGINAL

For eons, the majestic whooping crane, perhaps the best-known endangered species, has migrated in great flocks from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and then back again. A critical stopover in this migratory pattern is the Platte River in Nebraska.

This area also happens to be where the Nebraska Army National Guard conducts critical aviation exercises – vital training needed to ensure readiness.

The challenge? Find solutions to protect the endangered cranes and other migratory species, while still eliminating the conflicts that the training exercises could cause if not timed, managed and planned comprehensively.

For not only succeeding in rising to this challenge, but also for developing environmental models that can help protect the cranes in multiple states, the Nebraska ARNG was awarded the 2022 Secretary of the Army Environmental Award for their Natural Resource Conservation team.

“Protecting cranes protects the mission,” said Larry Vrtiska, Nebraska Military Department Environmental Program Manager, citing the formation of the Crane Protection Team, with Nebraska ARNG, US Geological Survey and the private Crane Trust, who led planning and modeling efforts to successfully mitigate potential conflicts. “These models not only enable military training, but also any other activities on state or federal lands within the migration corridor. This work is validation that conservation and training activities can be compatible.”

Vrtiska said a critical component of the Crane Protection Team’s success was the development of a predictive model based on habitat that takes crane risk factors into account along the entire migration path through multiple states. Armed with this information, the Nebraska ARNG is now able to plan its training flight paths and aviation exercises to accurately minimize the likelihood of interaction with migrating birds

“The size and scope of the migration corridor meant that in many instances, mitigation practices were being required to protect cranes, even when the likelihood of contact was exceedingly low,” said Vrtiska. “By developing the predictive model, the team is allowing Nebraska ARNG to assess relative risk for whooping crane encounters with a degree of accuracy never before possible.”

In addition, Nebraska ARNG also partnered with the Crane Trust to enhance habitat in key sites around 357 acres or trust-owned lands. The Crane Protection Team spearheaded efforts to bury 2.7 miles of powerlines along the Platte River corridor -- powerlines are the number one killer of whooping cranes and other birds, including sandhill cranes, piping plovers and least terns.

The team also conducted disking of sandbars on approximately 300 acres, removing vegetation to allow for sandbar mobility and formation. Sandbars provide roosting habitat for whooping cranes and breeding habitat for terns and plovers with natural protection from predators and human disturbance.

The team then removed approximately 57 acres of undesirable woody plant species encroaching on river roosting habitat, particularly invasive cedar, which benefits cranes as well as grassland nesting birds, migratory waterfowl and Regal Fritillary and Monarch butterflies.

And there’s more to come still under discussion in Nebraska ARNG’s quest to be effective environmental stewards, while never losing site of its mission.

“A feasibility study will be completed this year for construction of viewing platforms for people to see the cranes. The platform would include educational displays about the military support of conservation and the NEARNG’s role in improving crane habitat,” said Brice Krohn, Crane Trust President, adding that the Crane Protection Team is looking for other innovative ways of blending conservation and training needs. “One idea is using helicopters to practice forward-looking infrared equipment by conducting deer and bison surveys. The Crane Team’s relationship with the Crane Trust is opening doors for even more ambitious efforts toward shared conservation goals throughout the state.”