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325164

Whooping crane comeback proves value of conservation

Farmers have helped in a stunning rally by an endangered species.

If there is a shining symbol for the benefits of natural resource conservation programs, you could certainly point to the whooping crane, a highly endangered species that is staging a comeback in North America — in no small part due to the cooperation of farmers and other private landowners.

The bird is one of the most magnificent bird species in the world with its 5-foot stature and bright white, long feathers and black-tipped wings. Its near extinction was mainly due to habitat loss and hunting. Habitat restoration, enhancement, and management on private lands has aided its comeback.

In their 2,500-mile migration across the continent, from the Northwest Territories of Canada to south Texas, the big birds require stopover habitats along the route. “The most important habitats for feeding and roosting are shallow wetlands, and the Platte River often serves as an important stopover for migrating whooping cranes,” according to the Crane Trust, a conservation organization whose headquarters adjoin the river in central Nebraska.

Last fall, the birds made an impressive appearance along the central Platte River in central Nebraska, registering numbers not seen here in many decades. In one day in mid-November, 57 whooping cranes appeared on the river, says Kirk Schroeder, assistant state private lands program coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who has helped spearhead conservation work in Nebraska.

“The 57 confirmed birds was a one-day record in any modern record keeping,” Schroeder says. At one point in recent history, there were only an estimated 16 birds remaining in all of the continent. Now, in large part because of habitat conservation programs involving private landowners, the flock has risen to some 500 birds, he says.

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Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A miracle comeback

The significance of this drama on the Platte is spelled out in a report by the U.S. Geological Survey:

“The vanishingly small population of 16 in 1942 represents an extreme genetic and demographic bottleneck that few species survive,” underlining the seeming miracle of the cranes’ big turnout on the Platte last fall.

Michael Forsberg, a renowned Nebraska wildlife photographer (michaelforsberg.com), was on hand to witness the whooping crane stopover. “I nearly buckled at the knees when I realized we might be witnessing the largest gathering of whooping cranes together on the Platte in a century,” he wrote in a social media post.

“At that moment the sweep of this river’s history, the resilience of this species, and the generations of brave and dedicated people that made this possible came together. And so did the reality in knowing it will require equal bravery, effort, and vigilance of the next generations to carry this effort forward,” Forsberg wrote.

Public-private partnerships

A good part of the success of the whooping crane recovery is due to a conservation strategy involving farmers and other private landowners along the Platte River, says Schroeder. Some 300 individual conservation projects have been dedicated to restoration of wildlife habitat helpful to whooping cranes waterfowl and other wildlife species, he says. These projects include restoring and managing river roosting habitat as well as wetlands and wet meadows conservation.

“There’s a good incentive for landowners, because they want to have good waterfowl habitat on their properties,” Schroeder says. “They want to reduce potential flooding as well as providing wildlife habitat. We’ve worked with numerous landowners and conservation partners to restore wet meadows, wetlands, backwater sloughs, and convert croplands back to high-diversity prairies along the Platte River system. There have been countless tree removal projects from prairies, too.”

Among the conservation organizations that own river property along the Platte are the Crane Trust, the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, as well as the Platte River Recovery Program. State and federal agencies cooperate with landowners to provide technical assistance and cost-sharing for establishment of the conservation practices.

Similar wildlife habitat conservation projects have occurred elsewhere in Nebraska – in the Sandhills and along the North Platte River, for example. A recent study showed that 90% of those projects were still in place after the duration of the 10-year agreements, Schroeder says.

What’s the key to the success of the private lands partnerships?

“One of the things from our perspective is we want to keep working lands working,” Schroeder says. “We want to see the ag community be profitable and sustainable in everything that we do. We want to create the wildlife habitat benefits while still encouraging working farms and ranches and helping make them successful.

“The crane recovery is certainly a success story and a model for what we can aspire to do for other species,” he says. “But there’s no way we do this without the cooperation of private landowners.”

John Walter writes about conservation initiatives and ideas on his Buffalo County, Nebraska, farm at birdlandfarm.com.

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