LINCOLN, Neb. – For eons, majestic whooping crane, perhaps the best-known endangered species, have migrated in great flocks from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and 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? Protect the endangered cranes and other migratory species while eliminating the conflicts the training exercises could cause if not timed, managed and planned comprehensively.
For succeeding in rising to this challenge and 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 its 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, U.S. Geological Survey and the private Crane Trust, which led planning and modeling efforts to 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 the Crane Protection Team developed a predictive model based on habitat that takes crane risk factors into account along the entire migration path through multiple states. This information enabled the Nebraska ARNG to plan its training flight paths and aviation exercises to 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.”
The Nebraska ARNG also partnered with the Crane Trust to enhance habitat in key sites around 357 acres of trust-owned lands. The Crane Protection Team led efforts to bury 2.7 miles of powerlines along the Platte River corridor. Powerlines are the No. 1 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 and grassland nesting birds, migratory waterfowl and Regal Fritillary and Monarch butterflies.
And there’s more under discussion in Nebraska ARNG’s quest to be effective environmental stewards while never losing sight 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 to blend 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.”