Conservation Results in Record Whooping Crane use in the Rainwater Basin Wetland
In 2013, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) adopted a revised Implementation Plan. This plan incorporated habitat objectives for the priority species for the mixed grass prairie region of Nebraska. Playa wetlands in the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex (RWB) remained a priority habitat with additional recognition o n the importance these features for waterfowl, shorebirds, and the federally endangered Whooping Crane. Whooping Cranes are more selective than waterfowl and shorebirds and prefer larger playas located in the western portion of the RWB. Like with waterfowl and other migratory birds, Whooping Cranes rely on these wetlands as foraging sites and often spend an extended period of time at mid-latitude stopover sites to rest and replenish nutrient reserves needed to continue migration and initiate nesting.
In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) the RWBJV staff generated a migration corridor model and conceptual model to prioritize wetlands with the local (i.e. wetland size) and landscape features (i.e. juxtaposition within migration corridor, wetland density) attractive to Whooping Cranes. As part of this modeling effort 25 individual wetlands were prioritized for conservation work. This included seven private wetlands and 18 public wetlands (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission [NGPC] Wildlife Management Areas [WMAs] and USFWS Waterfowl Production Areas [WPAs]). Priority conservation actions for these sites include: acquisition of key round-outs from willing sellers, hydrologic restoration of the wetland and associated watersheds, and management to maintain desired habitat conditions. Th e focus of this holistic wetland and watershed approach is to increase the probability that these priority wetlands will provide habitat during migration.
Most WMAs and WPAs do not contain the entire hydric soil footprint and as a result this can limit management actions like pumping, prescribed fire, herbicide application, and grazing because of potential impacts to the adjacently privately owned portion of the wetland. These privately owned tracts that contain the remainder of the hydric soils are referred to as “round outs ” – as acquisition of these acres would round out the wetland footprint under public ownership and address management bottlenecks. In 2013, there were 1, 675 wetland round out acres associated with the priority public wetlands. Acquisition of these round outs area priority in the Implementation Plan.
Two key round outs have been acquired since 2013. The Freda Wild tract was a110 acre acquisition to Ritterbush WPA while the Dahlgren tract was an 80 acre acquisition at Cottonwood WPA. Ritterbush WPA is now 188 acres and contains 65% (125 acres) of the wetland footprint. Cottonwood WPA is now approximately 640 acres with the entire footprint (231 acres) under USFWS ownership. T o facilitate these acquisitions Ducks Unlimited (DU) worked with the USFWS to leverage $774,000 for these acquisitions. Funding for these acquisitions came from DU, Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), and North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA).
Playa watersheds funnel runoff to the wetlands that are at the lowest point. Unfortunately, these watersheds have been negatively impacted by road construction, land leveling, and excavation of irrigation reuse pits to maximize gravity irrigation efficiency. With the advent of pivot irrigation systems many of these pits are no longer part of the farm operation, but they still catch natural runoff that would historically filled the wetlands. Analysis by the RWBJV identified 316 irrigation reuse pits in the watersheds of priority Whooping Crane wetlands. These features could store 1,370 acre feet of water or approximately 35% of the volume of the wetlands. To address this issue the RWBJV partners established a Watershed Restoration Initiative. As part of this initiative 14 4 pits have been filled in wetlands that are in the core of the migration corridor. Work was implemented on seven private wetlands, two NGPC WMAs, and 1 8 USFWS WPAs. Impacted WPAs included: Atlanta, Bluestem, Cottonwood, Spoonbill Flats, Funk, Gleason, Jensen, Johnson, Jones, Lindau, Linder, Macon Lakes, Peterson, Prairie Dog, Quadhamer, Ritterbush, Weseman, and Youngson. Sacramento and West Sacramento WMAs were positively impacted through these activities. These pits had a storage volume of 565 acre feet. It is estimated that these activities will result in 1,140 acres of additional flooded habitat annually in these priority wetlands under average climate conditions. To complete these projects the RWBJV partners leveraged $ 2.86 million dollars. Funding came from County Roads Departments, DU, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET), NGPC, NAWCA, and USFWS through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW), Cooperative Recovery Initiative (CRI), and USFWS State of the Birds ( SotB ) funding.
Recognizing the impacted nature of these watersheds a majority of these properties also have had infrastructure installed to maximize supplemental water delivery. This infrastructure includes both high capacity groundwater well and surface water delivery infrastructure. Actions included drilling a replacement well at Gleason WPA, installing pipelines from high capacity groundwater wells at Clark and Johnson WPAs along with surface water infrastructure at Cottonwood, Funk, Johnson, Linder and Victor Lakes WPAs. In total 39,300 ft. of pipelines and six outlet structures were constructed at these sites. This infrastructure will allow these sites to be flooded in a seven day period. The $1.26 million in funding for these upgrades came from Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, DU, NAWCA, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, NET, Platte Basin Coalition, and USFWS SotB.
Several of these priority sites have had significant restorations as part of the watershed restoration activities or hav e major restorations planned. Sites that have been restored in the last several years include Atlanta, Clark, Funk – Mallard Unit, Johnson, Macon Lakes, Prairie Dog, Ritterbush, and Victor Lake WPAs. Project elements included removal of 7.15 miles of terraces, removal of nearly 150,000 cubic yards of fill and sediment, filling three surface drains, and cutting 275 acres of trees. These restoration and enhancement activities costs $1.25 million and were funded by DU, NAWCA, NET, and USFWS SotB. An additional $750,000 of NAWCA, NET, and SotB grant funds have been leveraged to complete restoration activities at Cottonwood, Linder, and the Whitefront Unit at Funk WPA. These projects are slated for the spring and summer of 2021.
A significant amount of infrastructure has been installed at several of these sites to incorporate grazing management to promote desired habitat conditions. New fence was constructed at Clark, Macon Lakes, and Ritterbush. Livestock water was developed at Ritterbush WPA.
Since 2013 the R WBJV partners have leveraged $6.87 million in funding to positively impact 27 RWB wetlands (7,945 acres) in the priority portion of the migration corridor. This work is providing a significant return on the conservation investment. Since 2013, there have been 32 unique sightings of Whooping Cranes with 64 individuals recorded. Spring 2021 surpassed all records in the RWB with eight different groups observed totaling 32 unique Whooping Cranes. All of these birds were observed on wetlands that had been protected, restored, or enhanced by the RWBJV partnership. Only six of the birds (19%) were not observed on wetlands identified as priority wetlands in the Habitat Suitability Index model that was used to guide the work outlined above.
Mid-latitude stopover habitat, provided by RWB wetlands and the Platte River, is vitally important for Whooping Cranes. The Wood Buffalo/Aransas population of Whooping Cranes in the only migratory population. Birds associated with this flock annually migrate between their wintering grounds on the Texas Gulf Coast to their breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. Most Whooping Crane mortality (60-80%) occurs during migration, and the Whooping Crane population cannot withstand added mortality. The difference between a stable and decreasing Whooping Crane population is a mortality of 7 cranes. Therefore, strategic conservation of habitats along the Whooping Crane migration corridor is essential to the survival of the species. Recognizing the current population is just 506 individuals the wetlands impacted by the above described actions provided habitat for 6% of the world’s population in 2021.
The use of these wetlands by this iconic species is just one of the many benefits of these projects. It is estimated that the 7,945 acres of wetland that were restored and enhanced through this project can recharge 9.06 billion gallons of water annually. This is three times the amount of water to meet the municipal drinking water needs for all of the residents in the RWB. The charged clay soils and wetland vegetation actively remove nitrogen and phosphors from the water that enters the wetlands helping to improve water quality.
Restoration and enhancement of these wetlands was a significant accomplishment recognizing the size, complexity of the restorations, and coordination with nearly 250 private landowners and neighbors adjacent to the public wetlands. Special thanks to all of the RWBJV partners that make these unique projects a success for Whooping Cranes and residents in the RWB.