STAFFORD — A study done earlier this year shows a need for more habitat for migrating whooping cranes in the southern great plains of Kansas.

Using dates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), researchers from the Crane Trust, FWS and the International Crane Foundation documented larger groups of endangered whooping cranes congregating along the center of their migration path, particularly in Stafford County, Kansas.

While the larger groups of cranes traveling together are a good sign of species recovery, the study authors said disease outbreaks or extreme weather could cause a catastrophic loss of the crane’s current population, especially if habitat issues are not addressed.

"A lot of Ducks Unlimited projects in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin and along the Platte River are stop-over sites for whooping cranes," said DUmanager of Kansas conservation programs Matt Hough. "Other wetland complexes where DUhas done extensive restoration work, including Quivira National Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas, are some of the sites where large groups have been spotted. This is a validation of our wetland work in those areas."

Andrew Caven, co-author of the study, said cranes have generally traveled in family groups, but group sizes have increased over the past 20 years as the species has recovered.

"Groups of more than 7-10 birds have increased as a proportion of total groups detected and at a rate that exceeds population growth,"Caven said. "Large groups crowding into wetland areas show up particularly in the southern Great Plains, where wetland habitat loss is the most pronounced along the migration corridor."

Caven said behavioral patterns may be contributing to the frequency of large whooping cranes gatherings, as they were also detected, albeit less frequently in the Dakotas where the wetland habitat is largely available.

"When whooping cranes were close to extinction, it may have limited their social behaviors. Now we see groups of up to 150, which likely improves their ability to find good forage and helps protect them from predators,"Caven said. "They are likely using each other as indicators of habitat and forage quality in places where resources are unevenly distributed."

Caven said with groups that size, and a total of 500 in the last remaining wild flock, disease or bad weather could quickly wipe out a significant percentage of the population.

To ensure a great distribution of wetland areas, DUand partners launched a Rainwater Basin Development Fund campaign earlier this year to increase conservation of one of the continent’s most critical migration habitats.

DUalso has the Bring Back the Bottoms campaign in Kansas to support increased wetland restoration and enhancement at the Cheyenne Bottoms complex, which is also a site where large whooping crane groups have regularly been detected.