Nebraska National Guard honored for directing helicopters away from whooping cranes | Nebraska
Whooping Cranes caused a stir in November when they landed along the Platte River.
A herd of 46 – nearly 10% of the endangered species population, the largest group ever recorded in the United States – was taking a week-long break at the Crane Trust southwest of Grand Island before finishing its trip to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
“These were historic numbers for whooping cranes in their migration corridor,” said Tim Smith, the nonprofit’s director of land management. “We haven’t seen numbers like this on the Platte River in over 100 years.”
And they were dragging nearly 357 acres of inviting new habitat — riverside sandbars and other habitats that had been cleared of unwanted vegetation and trees.
“One of the things we want to do is visually open up the river to migrating birds, like whooping cranes,” Smith said. “They prefer this habitat to conditions where the river is narrower and they can’t see.”
The job was done last year, its $300,000 price paid by the Crane Trust’s unlikely new partner, the Nebraska Army National Guard.
Because of this work – and for its other efforts to prevent potential conflicts with whooping cranes – the Nebraska Army National Guard recently won its first award from the Secretary of State’s Natural Resources Conservation Team. ‘army.
He will now compete with winners from other military branches – Navy, Marines and Air Force – for the top prize, the Department of Defense Environmental Award, which will be announced on Earth Day April 22.
But that wasn’t the intention when Larry Vrtiska came up with the idea a few years ago.
Nebraska’s military department environmental program manager had recognized the potential for conflict along the Platte River between endangered birds, which visit the area twice a year on their migrations between Canada and Texas, and members of the army guard, who use the same area. for training.
“Our thinking was, ‘Hey, what can we do to not impact our military mission, but also be stewards of our natural resources? “”
He wasn’t worried about the Guard helicopters colliding with the birds; he did not want the mere presence of the military to disturb and chase the birds from their resting places.
“The whooping cranes don’t like to be around people. They don’t like to be near roads, where there are a lot of vehicles. They don’t like to be disturbed.
Vrtiska found a pair of partners for the project, which would be called the Crane Protection Team. First, he worked with the US Geological Survey to try to figure out where the birds will be, and when.
The result? A computer model that identifies potential Whooping Crane habitat and behavior – during drought years or wet years. This information helps the Guard plan where it conducts its exercises.
“Maybe we can fly here instead of there,” he said. “It just moves the flight a bit.”
And it’s not just for the Nebraska National Guard. The Geological Survey model covers the entire Central Flyway from North Dakota to Texas.
“It’s for the entire Department of Defense in this migration path. Anyone can use these templates to see if there is a potential conflict and if there is a way to mitigate it.
Then the Guard approached the Crane Trust, offering to help create more whooping crane habitat, to give the birds an attractive – and protected – place to go if they were chased away by its helicopters.
He paid to have 300 acres of sandbar disced, to remove the vegetation. He cleared an additional 57 acres of unwanted trees. And he funded the burial of almost 3 miles of overhead power lines – a major crane killer.
It worked. When the record herd landed on the river late last year, the Crane Trust told the Guard to stay away.
“And we made sure to avoid the area,” Vrtiska said. “Our job is to be soldiers but also to protect resources. We can do our job and we can also protect these birds.