Conservation & Research

Conservation & Research

Using GPS Transmitters to Study Whooping Crane Migration

The Aransas-Wood Buffalo whooping cranes belong to the only self-sustaining population in existence. Currently at about 280 birds, their numbers are increasing but still remain dangerously low. Scientists have learned that the most dangerous times of year for the cranes are the two to three months when they migrate between their Canadian breeding grounds and Texas Winter home.

Since 2009, the Crane Trust scientists, in cooperation with the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Parks Canada, have placed GPS transmitters on 12 whooping cranes in Canada and Texas. These transmitters provide us with as many as four locations for each bird per day. This allows us to follow the cranes’ movements and learn more about how they move between Wood Buffalo National Park and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

We will continue banding birds through 2012 and expect to follow birds in the field through 2015. Already, we have learned much about the timing of the cranes’ movements, where they stop during migration, and how they use their winter habitat. The results of this study will give us a better understanding of crane migratory behavior and may help us to decrease the risks whooping cranes face on their yearly 5,000 mile round trip. Funding for this project has been provided by the Crane Trust, the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. Additional support has been provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Parks Canada.

To read about recent preliminary findings of the project, please click the following links:

2011 breeding and fall update

2011 winter and 2012 spring update

2012 breeding and fall update

2012 winter and 2013 spring update

2013 breeding and fall update

2013 winter and 2014 spring update

Response of Vertebrates to Land Management and Hydrology

The Crane Trust owns and manages lands that are dominated by mesic, tall-grass prairies, a habitat type that is now rare in the Great Plains due to changes in land use and alteration to river flows. The Trust actively manages its lands by burning grasslands and grazing cattle, in an effort to mimic natural disturbances by wildfire and bison grazing that once shaped this ecosystem. Wet meadows associated with the Platte River vary in local topography, with water-filled, linear depressions, known as sloughs, surrounded by drier, upland habitats, that combined create a diversity of habitats for organisms.

The objective of this research is to understand how vertebrates—amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals—respond to land management (burning and grazing) and variation in local hydrology on lands managed by the Trust.

Collaborative research is underway between researchers at the Crane Trust and the University of Nebraska at Kearney to study these interactions. Because the Trust manages some of the largest areas of wet meadow habitat remaining on the Platte, it serves as a reference for how parts of the river may have functioned historically. Results of these studies will help people understand the diversity and abundance of vertebrates that may have once existed in other parts of the Platte River. Results also will assist the Trust in evaluating the success of its land management activities for supporting a diversity of organisms. This research is supported by the Nebraska State Wildlife Grants Program (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the Crane Trust.

Migratory Movements of Whooping Crane Family Groups

Researchers have banded whooping cranes to identify individual birds as they move within and among breeding grounds, and some banded individuals have been monitored for decades. Observations based on banded birds show familial bonds among whooping cranes across several generations. This study focuses on understanding relationships among whooping cranes, spatial distribution of related whooping cranes during migration and rates of colonization of new territories by family members. By understanding patterns of use of territories at the breeding and wintering grounds and stopover use along the central flyway based on familial bonds, researchers may be able to suggest conservation strategies to support successful families of whooping cranes, as well as confirm migration fidelity to help protect potentially threatened migration routes and stopovers sites.

Research Review Focused on Wet Meadows of Platte River Valley

Wet meadows adjacent the Platte River provide important migratory feeding and nesting habitats for more than 150 species of birds and other wildlife in central Nebraska. Most wet meadows of the Platte River Valley have been drained and/or converted to cropland and other uses over the last several decades. As a result, wet meadows are now rare along the Platte River relative to their historical distribution.

The objective of this research is to synthesize existing information about wet meadows of the Platte River to determine the significance of this habitat for migratory and resident species, as well as to identify gaps in knowledge about wet meadow habitats. The research involves collecting all written information about Platte River wet meadows, including technical reports, theses and dissertations and peer-reviewed manuscripts; organizing this information in a computer database; creating an annotated bibliography; and writing a literature review. This synthesis will be a valuable reference for scientists studying the Platte River ecosystem and will help guide land managers as they strive to manage and restore wet meadows along the Platte. Funding for this research is provided by the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program and the Crane Trust.