While the whooping cranes were nesting in their summer homes at Wood Buffalo National Park over the summer, their advocates were working hard to ensure an even larger winter habitat continues to meet their needs.
In a major purchase, the state-run Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took hold of the 17,351-acre Powderhorn Ranch, which they hope to turn into a wildlife park with dedicated refuge space.
Wade Harrell, a conservationist with US Fish and Wildlife Services, said the new property is located directly across from the whooping crane’s winter home at the National Aransas Wildlife Refuge, which stretches across 115,000 acres of wetlands and is protected by nearby Matagorda Island.
“With the growing population, we’ve seen them use a broader array of habitat types than just the coastal marsh,” Harrell said of the birds, whose population increased to 304 as of this spring. “The last few years we’ve seen a few whooping cranes actually winter on a freshwater reservoir about two miles inland from the coast with different food and vegetation.”
Harrell said the acquisition of Powderhorn Ranch means the state is providing a wider range of safe habitat for the species by establishing one of the few zones along the coast that isn’t privately owned.
“The reason they’re moving off refuge is that it’s basically full; it’s housing as many whooping cranes as is probably possible,” Harrell said. “Our challenge is making sure we try to stay one step ahead of them and try to conserve quality habitat that they can go out and find and use.”
Over the summer, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission accepted the ranch as a donation from a triad of conservation organizations, including the department’s fundraising nonprofit group Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF), as well as the Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund.
A majority of funding for the $50-million deal came from the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, which will cover about $34.5 million to be doled out to the TPWF over the next three years. The funds came from a $2.5-billion pocket overseen by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, created with money from BP and Transocean as a part of plea agreements after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in 2010, resulting in a devastating oil spill.
The remaining amount will be raised through private donations and grants. So far, about $43 million of the total cost has been acquired.
Salt water, oil spills pose concerns
Just as wildfires and oilsands pose risks for whooping cranes as they head north for the summer, the species encounters challenges with its winter habitat, as well.
An ongoing drought has created salty conditions for the Aransas refuge, limiting the birds’ access to fresh drinking water and fostering overly-salinated waters that are unable to sustain local ecosystems. A low annual average of 15 inches of rain adds to the concern, but according to one biologist, human activity in the region has the most significant impacts on the ecosystem’s vitality.
“Texas is, in many areas, highly developed out of businesses that use water; the farmers use a lot of water and residents in the town use lots of water,” said Chester McConnell, president of the conservation group Friends of the Wild Whoopers. “They’re taking lots of fresh water out of the rivers before it can get down to the estuaries where the whooping cranes live. Also, they have about 55,000 major man-made reservoirs in Texas, so the challenge there is they’re stopping lots of water from getting into the rivers.”
McConnell said the water bodies he is most concerned for are the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, both of which flow into the refuge. For years, The Aransas Project (TAP) conservation group has been in and out of US federal court with the state to eliminate the industrial developments impacting the waterways. The case is currently being appealed by TAP after their original win was reversed.
Harrell said an oil spill at Matagorda Island also caused some concerns for the refuge habitat during April of last year, but with careful and efficient coordination, the mess was quickly cleaned with little impact on local wildlife.