The conundrum of Sandhill Crane management

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The male Sandhill Crane is performing a mating dance for the female in Southwest Montana. Photo credit to Cindy Herzog

Each August, thousands of sandhill cranes stop in Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge to call, feed and rest after migrating from their breeding grounds, and are celebrated by locals and visitors alike. Managing these birds and their habitat to ensure their protection and return next year is a continuous and complicated endeavor.

Cranes rely on habitat in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Russia for breeding, wintering and migration, according to a paper entitled “Geographic Distribution of the Mid-Continent Population of Sandhill Cranes and Related Management Applications by Gary L. Krapu.

Due to the mixed dispersion of each population, a management plan must be devised. But just as one migration route will not suffice for Alaska’s sandhill cranes, neither will one management plan.

Migratory birds, including sandhill cranes, are protected by federal law under the Migratory Bird Act. However, migratory birds are more specifically managed depending on what flyway, or path, they migrate in.

The portion of each flyway within the U.S. is managed under documents created by management councils to assist state and federal agencies with the cooperative management of migratory birds, according to Councils are groups of representatives from game management agencies who provide regulation recommendations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to

Councils join with state, federal and provincial biologists, land management agencies and university students and faculty to create management plans, according to Biologists from the Central Flyway, Mexico, Russia and Canada also contribute to Pacific Flyway management plans and have created 28 plans to date.

With such a variety of citizens, agencies and budgets jointly involved in the creation of management plans, the partners within each flyway, together, must reach agreements when devising efficient and sustainable management plans.

A variety of professional opinions, backgrounds and research will contribute new insight and knowledge to the plan that partners may not have thought of individually. Citizens living and recreating within the flyway can say what they enjoy most about having access to and using the migratory bird resource and influence management decisions through their support of passive or intensive management. Furthermore, researchers from different fields can collaborate and present their individual data collections to paint a better picture of what is actually happening with the land migrating birds’ use and the birds themselves.

However, because management plans allow for multiple land and species uses, diverse opinions can lead to confusions and conflicts of interest.

Borealis Kiwanis, a community service organization, spreads barley over the Creamer’s Field waterfowl viewing field and made seven ponds to encourage waterfowl to stay throughout the summer.

Sandhill Crane Pond, an additional habitat, was made in 1989 in agreement with the Fairbanks International Airport. The outer fields and Sandhill Crane Pond is managed with the goals of habitat protection, deterring bird harassment and activities including dog training, falconry and bowhunting and “will be closed to all public access during fall migration in September,” according to the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge Interim Management Plan of 1993.

These actions will help ensure migrating birds like sandhill cranes, who can fly up to 400 miles in a single day, according to, have reliable wetland habitat they need for resting, refueling and breeding. These actions keep birds away from the airport. At least 41 bird strikes have damaged Alaska aircraft already, according to an article entitled “Policing the bird highway in Alaska skies” by Alex Bosworth. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration reports that bird strikes to aircraft total up to $957 million each year.

Eielson Air Force Base and airports employ different strategies to prevent bird strikes, including habitat modification such as removing plant cover and standing water, which make the base less desirable as a recovery and nesting habitat. They also employ noise making from propane cannons and lethal take, although killing birds is a last resort.

Management complexities will not go away anytime soon and complexity compounded with climate change and growing population and resource use calls to question what humans can do for land management. Interested parties can read about the requirements of different species and the way they are managed so they can make stronger decisions when making lifestyle choices.

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