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Wetlands, Watersheds, and Whooping Cranes: Wetland Habitat Restoration in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska

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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.

Whooping Cranes at Funk Lagoon Waterfowl Production Area in Nebraska. (The buildings in the background are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District headquarters). Photo by Ronnie Sanchez.

Whooping Cranes at Funk Lagoon Waterfowl Production Area in Nebraska. (The buildings in the background are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District headquarters). Photo by Ronnie Sanchez.

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.

The Rainwater Basin provides important habitat to hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl. Photo by Doug Steinke.

The Rainwater Basin provides important habitat to not only for Whooping Cranes, but waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wetland species. Photo by Doug Steinke.

Over the years, humans have modified the Rainwater Basin, draining wetlands for agricultural use. They dug irrigation pits as part of a gravity irrigation system. These pits captured excess water so farmers could use it again. Although the pits gave farmers water for their crops, they kept vital water out of the wetlands.

"Before" picture of an irrigation pit in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska.

“Before” picture of an irrigation pit in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska.

Now that farmers in the area use pivot irrigation, these pits are no longer necessary. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, partnering with a variety of agencies and private landowner, are working together to fill these pits and restore the wetlands.

In 2013 partners including the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, the Nebraska Ecological Services Field Office, and the Nebraska Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program received a $1,000,000 grant to restore and improve migratory habitat for the Endangered Whooping Crane.

The goal of this project is to work with private landowners in the region to fill unused irrigation pits surrounding important wetlands. This will allow water to naturally flow to the wetlands, improving migratory habitat for Whooping Cranes, waterfowl, and other wetland birds.

Moving dirt to fill irrigation pits is no small undertaking.

Moving dirt to fill irrigation pits is no small undertaking.

As of March 2014, the partnership has filled 50 pits, created formal agreements to fill 20 more, and obtained verbal agreements with private landowners to fill an additional 10 pits. Biologists are also conducting monitoring to evaluate the impact of their effort and improve similar habitat restoration projects.

"After" picture of a filled irrigation pit.

“After” picture of a filled irrigation pit. The water is no longer concentrated in an artificial depression but rather flows naturally to playa wetlands.

The long-term conservation of Whooping Cranes faces an uphill battle, but there are many reasons to be hopeful. This project is an example of the innovation, creativity, and collaboration that is needed for the survival of this iconic species.

Photo by Ronnie Sanchez.

Photo by Ronnie Sanchez.

To learn more about this project and other bird conservation work in the Rainwater Basin contact Andy Bishop, Coordinator, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture.

Interested in birding in the Rainwater Basin?

Photo by Doug Steinke.

Photo by Doug Steinke.

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Jennie Duberstein
Jennie Duberstein has lived in southeastern Arizona since 2001, where she coordinates the Sonoran Joint Venture, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program that works to conserve the unique birds and habitats of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. She is the ABA's Young Birder Liaison, managing The Eyrie (the ABA’s young birder blog) and ABA Young Birders Facebook page and providing support to other young birder programs. She has worked with young birders through the ABA and other organizations since the late 1990s, directing summer camps, leading field courses, organizing conferences, and editing young birder publications. Jennie directs the ABA's Camp Colorado, co-leads VENT's Camp Chiricahua, and is a proud member of the Leica Birding Team.
Jennie Duberstein

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  • Steve H

    Cool stuff. When I was at Humboldt State, back in March of 1978, I was blessed to travel to the Wildlife Society student conclave being held at Texas A&M. We drove and birded the whole way ( A VERY long road trip from Arcata, Ca. to College Station, Tx.). Our last birding stop before the conclave was the Aransas NWF. We took a tour boat around and saw 35 whooping Cranes that day. Truly a life time memory. They’re movements are done with slow deliberation and much grace and dignified presence.

    One thing we learned at that time, was that particular winter only 78 birds arrived to winter from Wood Buffalo. So that day, we viewed almost 1/2 of all the wild birds in the world that had survived the winter of 1977-78.

    Obviously for me, it was a life time memory. It puts a smile on my face to realize that with slow diligent steady determination, we have been able to see the population continue to grow. Hopefully, by taking steps in Nebraska and all along their migration routes, we can help accelerate the recovery of these magnificent birds.

  • Scott Weidensaul

    I’ve birded the Rainwater Basin many times (most recently just a few weeks ago) and can attest to the incredible importance of these playa wetlands to waterfowl, migrant shorebirds and of course whooping cranes (three of which I saw in Gleason Federal Waterfowl Production Area a few years ago). Stopping at Gleason last month, there were no cranes but five or six thousand pintails feeding in harvested corn fields, many thousands more down on the water with thousands of other puddle ducks of a number of species, and about 30,000 snow geese — almost all of which took flight when a bald eagle made a low pass. Funk was jammed with thousands upon thousands of redheads and many more pintails, gadwalls and other ducks. Anyone visiting the Platte to see the cranes, especially if they’re coming a bit early (first half of March) should make the Rainwater Basin a priority.

  • Rick Wright

    Thanks for the good news about one of my favorite places on earth. The RWB is indeed important to geese and ducks and cranes, and vital to such migrant shorebirds as Hudsonian godwits and buff-breasted sandpipers. May is as exciting there as March and April.

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