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A Comprehensive Review of Observational and Site Evaluation Data of Migrant Whooping Cranes in the United States, 1943-99

Development of Observation and Site Evaluation Databases

Two data sets with information about whooping crane sightings were developed during 1943-99. The type and amount of information collected by observers changed over time. The following history of the databases provides insight on the general characteristics of data collected and idiosyncrasies that exist in the computerized databases. Specifically, it describes when changes occurred and how the method of data collection may have influenced summarized results.

Records of whooping crane stopover sightings have been documented since 1943. Prior to 1975, however, there was no flyway-wide organized effort to identify and record whooping crane sightings during migration. In spring 1974, 9 whooping cranes were sighted in the Rainwater Basin region of south-central Nebraska during an avian cholera outbreak. This incident caused biologists to realize the importance of protecting whooping cranes during migration. More information was needed about general migration movements and habitat use at stopover sites. To gain information, the Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Project began in the United States and Canada in fall 1975. The United States portion of the program was coordinated by the Endangered Species Supervisor, USFWS Area office, Pierre, South Dakota. In 1975, the Canadian Wildlife Service generated a form for reporting whooping crane sightings in Canada (Report Form 1). No standardized reporting form was developed for the United States sightings until 1977 when the National Audubon Society (NAS) organized a whooping crane reporting network, to boost the effort to monitor sightings of whooping cranes. A goal of the NAS was to help coordinate public sightings with the USFWS program. A whooping crane reporting form (Report Form 2) was developed by USFWS to standardize descriptions of sightings and to classify sightings as confirmed, probable, or unconfirmed (as defined in the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan).

In 1978, Wallace Jobman (Wildlife Biologist, USFWS Area office, Pierre, SD) was designated as Project Coordinator. From that time until the present, a cover letter and form for reporting sightings was sent prior to each migration to federal and state wildlife offices throughout the U.S. portion of the flyway (MT, ND, SD, WY, NE, CO, KS, OK, and TX) to alert biologists of the potential for whooping crane stopovers in their region, to encourage verification of sightings, and to report any unusual hazards along the migration route to the Pierre Area office.

Realizing the need to obtain additional information about habitat requirements of whooping cranes, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team met in February 1978 and developed comprehensive guidelines for reporting observations and evaluating habitats used by whooping cranes. The new guidelines requested information about habitat variables that were suggested as important for evaluating whooping crane habitat, as indicated by published literature and previous sightings reports. The form included 2 components: guidelines for a written report (Report Form 3a), and a sighting report short-form (Report Form 3b).

In 1978, the USFWS designated 9 sites in 6 states as critical habitat (Federal Report Vol. 43, No. 94, May 15): Cheyenne Bottoms State Wildlife Area (SWA), Kansas; Platte River valley between Lexington and Dehman, Nebraska; Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Oklahoma; Aransas NWR, Texas; Monta Vista NWR, Colorado; Alamosa NWR, Colorado; Grays Lake NWR, Idaho; and Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico. The latter 4 areas were associated with the experimental cross-fostering study conducted during 1976-85. All but 1 of these sites are under state or federal protection; the Platte River site remains largely under private ownership. As a result, the Platte River became a priority area for the USFWS. The Pierre Endangered Species Office was subsequently moved to Grand Island, Nebraska, in August 1985. Wallace Jobman moved with the office and continued to coordinate the monitoring effort.

In 1984, a committee of federal and state biologists was formed to further identify hazardous situations within the flyway. The Committee produced a 1985 Contingency Plan for federal-state cooperative protection of whooping cranes. Part of the plan included a protocol for collecting sick or dead cranes and for reporting observations of cranes (Report Form 4). From 1985 to present, the Contingency Plan has been integrated with the Cooperative Whooping Crane Tracking Project. Report Forms 3b and 4 were both used to report whooping crane sightings during 1985-99. These 2 forms were considered as a short form for reporting whooping crane sightings. When a sighting occurred, a biologist could then report the information using 1 of the 2 short forms only, or they also could complete an evaluation guideline (Report Form 3a).

In 1985, data of all confirmed sightings were entered into a computerized (dBase) database. This prompted the USFWS to create a new stopover habitat evaluation form. Some habitat evaluation categories were altered in order to facilitate data entry (Report Form 5). The forms were sent to key state and federal offices for use during reporting, but often only the short form Whooping Crane Sighting Report (Report Form 3b) or Contingency Report (Report Form 4) was returned to the Grand Island office. In many cases, habitat evaluation information (as outlined on Report Form 5) was communicated by telephone to the USFWS office. The computerized format was used for reporting site evaluations until 1999 when the habitat evaluation portion of the monitoring program was halted so that information accumulated to date could be summarized and evaluated.

By the mid-1980s, the Platte River was an important political focus for the state of Nebraska because of pending applications for out-of-stream water use and its influence on threatened and endangered species. In 1987, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission began to augment the USFWS monitoring with additional evaluation data (Report Form 6). The goal of the Nebraska monitoring program was to gain a more detailed evaluation of habitat used by whooping cranes and to use the information for habitat conservation measures in Nebraska. The Nebraska monitoring program occurred until 1999. Evaluation forms and a computerized database are maintained at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission office in Lincoln.

During the course of the USFWS sightings monitoring program, information that was recorded changed with each new reporting format. From 1943 to 1977, only observational data were collected. Observations consisted of sightings of cranes on the ground (roosting, foraging, loafing) or in flight. From 1978 to 1999, observation reports were continued, and site evaluations were compiled to describe sites used by cranes sighted on the ground. After sighting evaluations were developed, reporters occasionally would file an observation report only. As a result, 2 separate databases (observation, evaluation) were compiled and continued until 1999. Along with these 2 confirmed sightings databases, the USFWS office in Grand Island houses observation forms with information about probable and unconfirmed sightings.

During the 25 years (1975-99) of the monitoring program, most sightings of whooping cranes were first reported by private citizens. Calls by private citizens most often were made to USFWS or state wildlife offices. All confirmed sightings were verified by a state or federal biologist or other reputable bird expert, such as personnel from The Platte River Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust and Lillian Rowe Audubon Sanctuary. Throughout the flyway at national wildlife refuges, state land areas, and most of Nebraska, birds often were watched after the initial confirmed sighting, and additional sighting locations were recorded. Most other sightings occurred in areas far enough from state and federal offices that an observation was reported in a single location and checks for use of additional locations in that vicinity were not conducted. Since 1978, federal and state offices have provided key contact persons for monitoring stopovers. These offices house many of the biologists that attempted to confirm sighting reports. Offices contacted included USFWS state field offices (Billings, MT; Grand Island, NE; Pierre, SD; Bismarck, ND; and Manhatten, KS); federal refuges or wetland management districts (Medicine Lake NWR, MT; Long Lake NWR, ND; Crosby Wetland Management District, ND; Lake Andes NWR, SD; Quivira NWR, KS; Salt Plains NWR, OK; and Aransas NWR, TX), Cheyenne Bottoms SWA, Kansas; and state wildlife departments (North Dakota Game and Fish Department; South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks; Nebraska Game and Parks Commission; Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks; Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation; and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department).

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