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Whoopers Return to Louisiana After 60 Years
by Deborah Fuller
Photo credit: Sara Zimorski, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
In February 2011, 10 young whooping cranes reared at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, were flown to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' White Lake Wetland Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. Less than a month later, the netting over their pen was pulled back, and for the first time in 60 years, whooping cranes flew freely over the Louisiana marshes.
No one is more is familiar or connected with the effort to restore the species to Louisiana's landscape than Mary Courville, whose father, John Lynch, confirmed the presence of that Louisiana non-migratory, breeding population of 13 whooping cranes in 1939. This was the last record of whooping cranes breeding in the wild in the U.S., prior to experimental and captive-raised birds.
Historically, whooping cranes were wide-ranging in North America, occurring from central Canada south to Mexico, and from Utah to the Atlantic coast—numbering from 15,000 to 20,000 individuals. Their populations were devastated by conversion of their wetland and grassland habitat to agricultural fields, coupled with unregulated hunting and specimen collection. By 1941, only 21 remained in the world—six in a non-migratory population at White Lake and 15 at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Just eight years later, only a single whooping crane remained in Louisiana.
In 1950, this surviving crane – named Mac – was captured and transferred to the last remaining flock at nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Mary recalls being there when the discussions and the plans to capture Mac were made. Sadly, he died just six months later, which would have seemed to be the end of this magnificent bird in Louisiana, but the desire and dedication of many individuals and agencies to restore whoopers has proved otherwise.
Photo Credit: USFWS
In 1956, Mary's father, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, proposed the addition of a captive rearing program to ongoing whooping crane conservation activities. His proposal was originally dismissed by the recovery team.
He was later asked to attempt hatching eggs in captivity. Mary recalls having the privilege of feeding meal worms to the juvenile whooping crane, and even as a young teenager, she knew that this is history in the making. "The only research on whooping cranes being done was in our back yard," says Mary. "We were blessed as a family to be involved in such an undertaking."
Mary's connection with whooping cranes faded after her father's death in 1983, until her mother volunteered her to become the Secretary-Treasurer for the Whooping Crane Conservation Association.
"I was not ready for what the job entailed, but learned as time evolved," says Mary. "I realized that what dad and others had started was well on its way."
The ongoing story of whooping crane recovery in Louisiana and elsewhere epitomizes what the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is all about—dedication and cooperation of individuals and organizations towards a common goal with the hope that those efforts can make a difference.
"I am grateful that we have recreated history with a new flock in the White Lake area, which I can take my grandchildren to see," says Mary.
Whooping cranes were among the first species to gain ESA protection. This remarkable Louisiana event is the latest achievement resulting from the dedication and cooperation by many partners to safegard this this endangered bird from the risk of extinction.
The efforts of the Canadian and United States government agencies – with support from provincial and state partners, zoos, and non-governmental organizations – have helped the species rebound from a low of 21 individuals in 1941 to nearly 600 in North America today.
Deborah Fuller, a biologist in the Service's Louisiana Ecological Services office Office, can be reached at email@example.com or 337-291-3124.
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