U.S. military helps secure land for migrating whooping cranes

The ponds used by whooping cranes to rest and refuel on their 4,000-kilometre migration from Wood Buffalo National Park to the south are disappearing.

With plenty of open space, military bases make ideal habitat for resting whooping cranes

Whooping cranes migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Conservationists worry they're running out of places to rest along the way. (Joe Duff/Operation Migration/The Associated Press)

After years at the brink of extinction, whooping cranes are facing a new challenge.  

The ponds they use to rest and refuel on their 4,000-kilometre migration from Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the N.W.T.-Alberta border, to Arkansas and Texas are disappearing.  

But a group that fights for the preservation of whooping crane habitat has come across a military solution of sorts.

"We contacted the military personnel and asked if they could help us out by selecting some of their ponds to be useful to be stopover habitat for whooping cranes," said Chester McConnell, an Alabama-based wildlife biologist with Friends of the Wild Whoopers.  

The whooping cranes' journey takes nearly a month, requiring up to 15 rest stops along the way. The birds need small ponds with shallow water that aren't surrounded by too much brush.     

But many of those ponds are on private land and are disappearing due to development, urbanization and agriculture. Military bases, which often cover huge areas of open space, seemed like an ideal solution.

Ponds on nine different bases are now monitored and kept shallow. The brush around them is pushed back in hope of attracting the birds.

Amber Dankert, a wildlife team manager at the Fort Hood base in Texas, which covers nearly 900 square kilometres, said staff at the base were excited to be helping the "whoopers."

"We don't want to see any loss," she said. "There's not enough [cranes] already so we want to increase this population and make this area a safe, healthy stopover."

McConnell said 70 ponds may be "whooper friendly," but Friends of the Wild Whoopers doesn't know how many of those are being monitored yet.