Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains--Part II

this lovely image courtesy of Val Mann

Not far from the town of Kerrobert in west-central Saskatchewan, sixty some kilometres east of the Alberta border, there is a series of large wetlands--broad, alkali marshes--where the prairie Whooping Crane in the early 1920s made its last stand. It is believed that this small remnant was one of the last groups of free-nesting Whooping Cranes to breed anywhere outside Wood Buffalo National Park.

Bill Cholon of Luseland, born in the dustbowl of the 1930s, recalls his father speaking of the big white cranes or “herons” that nested at one of these wetlands, which is still known as “White Heron Lake.” His father told him he saw Whooping Cranes nesting in the early 1920’s after a great prairie fire roared over the plains, forcing them to flee to the eastern shore of the big marsh.

Here is a satellite image of the lake today:

The next to last official nest record for Whooping Cranes outside Wood Buffalo N.P. (and at the time no one knew about the Wood Buffalo breeding grounds), comes from a few miles away from White Heron Lake at another wetland near the town of Baliol, which no longer exists.

The nearest large slough to Baliol today is called “Shallow Lake,” sometimes called “Baliol Lake,” a couple of miles to the southwest. Here is a satellite image of Shallow Lake:

If you know anything about the way native prairie looks on satellite photography, you may have already noticed that both of these large shallow lakes are surrounded by native grass. In fact, each of these historically and ecologically significant wetlands exists on federal PFRA community pastures. Shallow Lake is part of Progress Community Pasture in the Rural Municipality of Progress and White Heron Lake is in Mariposa Community Pasture in the Rural Municipality of Mariposa.

Kerry Finley grew up not far from these prairie wetlands on a farm close to Luseland. Kerry is a rare biologist (spent much of his career in kayaks studying Canada’s Bowhead Whales), whose respect for natural history and other forms of traditional and non-scientific knowledge has gotten him in trouble from time to time. An inveterate and some would say irascible defender of prairie wildness, he has dug into the story of those last Whooping Cranes, beginning with the local lore that came to him through his grandfather and other local Luseland people.

In the fall of 1922, Kerry’s grandfather, J.V. Finley, and a friend named Joe Perry, shot two Whooping Cranes at Buffalo Coulee, fifteen miles straight south of Luseland and a couple of miles southwest of Shallow Lake. Here is the photo taken at the time. (“Yvonne,” written at the bottom, was Kerry’s aunt, born in 1919.)

From today’s perspective, we are aghast that someone would kill a Whooping Crane (they actually shot three, but only retrieved two), but this incident occurred in a moment in Canada’s history when we were just beginning to enact laws and treaties to conserve birds. In 1918, Canada signed a new Migratory Bird Treaty Act, taking an important step toward protecting all migratory birds from unregulated hunting. Enforcement would fall to game guardians, men appointed by the Crown and paid abysmally to travel wide stretches of countryside policing the hunting and fishing practices of settlers.

On the 19th of May in 1922, the year Finley and Perry shot the Whooping Cranes at Buffalo Coulee, Saskatchewan’s first game guardian, Neil Gilmour, traveled to Shallow Lake to look for Whooping Crane nests. His notes say he soon found a pair of nesting adults but it took him hours of tromping the muddy margins of the lake before he came upon the nest in a small patch of open water: “The nest resembled a half-submerged cock of hay, flat on top and completely surrounded by water. Carelessly on the top of this mass of grass, was deposited the two large brownish-buff coloured eggs, about four inches in length.”

The story was written up with some enthusiasm by the great American bird encyclopedist, Arthur Cleveland Bent, recounting what he believed to be one of the most important nest records in his twenty-one volume, Life Histories of North American Birds.

That spring a total of three Whooping Crane nests were found in this part of Saskatchewan by Gilmour and others, two at Shallow Lake and a third at Kiyiu (Cree for “eagle”) Lake south of the town of Plenty, thirty miles away. In an exhaustively researched paper on Whooping Crane records published in the June 1994 Blue Jay, biologist Dale Hjertaas reported that another Kerrobert area observer, a man named Archie Smith, told Chief Game Guardian Fred Bradshaw that ten years earlier there were as many as twelve Whooping Cranes nesting at Shallow Lake.

In May of 2012, a century since that last concentration of nesting Whooping Cranes on the prairie, the famous conservationist and president and co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, Dr. George Archibald, traveled from foundation headquarters in Wisconsin to Regina to speak at a conference. A year before he had written to Kerry Finley to commend him on his article published in The Blue Jay, an article detailing the records at Shallow and Kiyui lakes as well as his grandfather’s story of shooting three of the last cranes. Finley ended the article stating that “as the whooping crane population continues to grow it will need to re-occupy this traditional nesting ground.”

During their correspondence, Finley invited Archibald to come to the area to see the last known significant nesting ground of the Whooping Crane south of Wood Buffalo. That May, Finley took Dr. Archibald to see the wetlands, accompanied by the PFRA Community Pasture manager. Joining the tour was Lorne Scott, long time conservationist and board member of the Whooping Crane Conservation Association, and old Bill Cholin, whose father had seen the great white birds at White Heron Lake when a prairie fire pushed them to its shores in the ‘1920s.

Bill kept his silence until just before the group walked over the fence and into Progress Community Pasture. Here is Kerry’s account of that moment:

“We were about to wrap up our roadside reconnoitre, when Bill brought out a manila envelope and unrolled a single yellow page. I was dumbfounded : “Whooping Cranes”, it read in bold letters, “also known as White Turkeys are in danger of becoming extinct”. It was a notice from Ottawa, signed by J.B. Harkin, [commissioner of Canada’s National Parks at the time and sometimes referred to as the “Father of Canada’s National Parks.”]. He said it had been found by a local man, in the abandoned home of Archie Smith in Kerrobert. At the bottom, in small type, I noted with exhilaration that it was dated December 1922.”

Why "exhilaration"? Well, that meant that that the official notices against killing Whooping Cranes were posted several months after Finley’s grandfather and his friend Joe Perry shot the three cranes.

Archie Smith is something of an unsung hero in this story. Smith took out a homestead on the shores of Shallow Lake and likely knew its cranes better than anyone. Finley believes that he was the one who guided Neil Gilmour around to the nesting sites at Shallow Lake, though he receives no mention in Bent’s Histories. 

Regardless, after 1922, the nest records at Shallow Lake and Kiyui Lake thinned out, and as we know the Whooping cranes stopped coming. In a letter Archie wrote to provincial Game Guardian Fred Bradshaw in 1932, he reported that he saw the last pair nest in the summer of 1928. They visited briefly in 1929, he said, but did not return in 1930.

When the Big Dry of the ‘30s hit, the lakes evaporated and blew away, returning in wetter decades as prairie lakes will. By 1941 the world was down to fifteen Whooping Cranes wintering on the Texas coast and no one had a clue where they nested. Wood Buffalo was not discovered until the mid-1950s.

What does this all mean? If Canadians want to protect its wild breeding population of Whooping Cranes, we need to help them start a second nesting site in this country. Breeding at a single location downstream from the blight and poison of Alberta’s tar sands, the species is in a precarious place.

For some time now, people in Whooping Crane conservation circles have discussed the pros and cons of re-establishing a second Canadian breeding population at a wetland complex on the plains.

Why not try it in Saskatchewan near the very centre of their historic continental range, as Dale Hjertaas once suggested? There are two or three locations in the province that may work, but there is something historically satisfying in the dream of re-establishing the species in the last place on the prairie where they were breeding in numbers a mere century ago.

Regardless of whether these large lakes are used to re-establish a prairie population of Whooping Cranes, two of them are on federal community pastures. These two pastures will soon be transitioned to provincial responsibility, where if all goes according to plan they will be managed by private cattle producers who will receive zero assistance or support to protect the public interest in this land.

As former Whooping Crane nesting areas, these places deserve better. The grazing patrons deserve better too, for they should not be handed the burden of protecting this heritage all on their own. Of course, this is but one story among many demonstrating that the heritage and ecological treasures of our community pastures are being placed at risk.

These grasslands form some of the largest contiguous blocks of original prairie on the Northern Great Plains. If it is not a story about Whooping Cranes, it is about a historic site where the Metis once lived, or it is about one of the last places where the yellow-bellied racer (an endangered snake) survives, or where Wallace Stegner spent his childhood summers and fell in love with the wild prairie.

Remembering the Whooping cranes that once depended on the wetlands of Progress and Mariposa pastures, can we not find a solution here? Is it not possible for public and private sectors to work together to balance grazing interests with the wider public interest in conserving heritage and ecological benefits? There are conservation NGOs who would like to help, the grazing patrons at the pastures would like to help, and there are many people in both federal and provincial public service who would like to help.

It is within our reach to sit down at a table and take a second look at how we manage the transition of the pastures in Saskatchewan, and to find a cost structure and creative management model that satisfies a range of public expectations here: for fiscal responsibility, for access to the pastures, and for protection of the heritage and ecological resources they contain. And, if we do it right, it should not have to cost the Province a dollar.

That may or may not happen one bright day but, at the very least, Shallow Lake, White Heron Lake, and Kiyiu Lake deserve to be designated with some kind of heritage and ecological protection. It might be nice to give Archie Smith some posthumous recognition for his service as well.

[Note: almost everything in this post is based on information passed on to me by Luseland naturalist, James (Kerry) Finley, or gleaned from back issues of The Blue Jay (the natural history journal of Nature Saskatchewan), specifically Hjertaas, D.G. 1994. Summer and breeding records of the Whooping Crane in Saskatchewan. Blue Jay 52(2) : 99- 115; and Houston, C.S. 2010. Saskatchewan’s First Game Guardian: Neil Gilmour, 1859-1940. Blue Jay 68(1): 41- 44; and Finley, J.K. 2011. Return of the Golden Bird: the last breeding ground of the whooping crane on the prairies. Blue Jay 69 (2): 88-94..]

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