The central Platte River valley (CPRV) in Nebraska, USA, is a key spring-staging area for approximately 80% of the midcontinent population of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis; hereafter cranes). Evidence that staging cranes acquired less lipid reserves during the 1990s compared to the late 1970s and increases in use of the CPRV by snow geese (Chen caerulescens) prompted us to investigate availability of waste corn and quantify spatial and temporal patterns of crane and waterfowl use of the region. We developed a predictive model to assess impacts of changes in availability of corn and snow goose abundance under past, present, and potential future conditions. Over a hypothetical 60-day staging period, predicted energy demand of cranes and waterfowl increased 87% between the late 1970s and 1998–2007, primarily because peak abundances of snow geese increased by 650,000 and cranes by 110,000. Compared to spring 1979, corn available when cranes arrived was 20% less in 1998 and 68% less in 1999; consequently, the area of cornfields required to meet crane needs increased from 14,464 ha in 1979 to 32,751 ha in 1998 and 90,559 ha in 1999. Using a pooled estimate of 88 kg/ha from springs 1998–1999 and 2005–2007, the area of cornfields needed to supply food requirements of cranes and waterfowl increased to 65,587 ha and was greatest in the eastern region of the CPRV, where an estimated 54% of cranes, 47% of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), 45% of greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons), and 46% of snow geese occurred during ground surveys. We estimated that a future reduction of 25% in available corn or cornfields would increase daily foraging flight distances of cranes by 27–38%. Crane use and ability of cranes to store lipid reserves in the CPRV could be reduced substantially if flight distance required to locate adequate corn exceeded a physiological maximum distance cranes could fly in search of food. Options to increase carrying capacity for cranes include increasing accessibility of cornfields by restoring degraded river channels to disperse roosting cranes and increasing wetland availability in the Rainwater Basin to attract snow geese using the CPRV.
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Vol. 74 • No. 3