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Protect It, and They Will Come
Photo Credit: Bryan Woodward, USFWS
Each November brings a sense of anticipation to residents of the South Carolina lowcountry. It is an anticipation of cooler weather, fall hunts, and the arrival of large, majestic white birds with crimson crowns, gracing the skies of the lowcountry in the heart of the ACE Basin. A bird noted for its resounding “whoop” calls, one that had not been seen in South Carolina for over 150 years, the whooping crane (Grus americana) has once again made its presence known.
So, after over a century’s absence, how has this glorious creature returned to South Carolina?
In the fall of 2004, 14 whooping cranes made their way into South Carolina during migration, an un-expected outcome of a reintroduction partnership begun in 1999. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) – a partnership of non-profit organizations, individuals, and government agencies – has been working to bring a migratory population of whooping cranes back to eastern North America. Each year since 2001, a cohort or group of whooping cranes is raised at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and trained to follow ultralight aircraft over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) south to Florida’s Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge for the winter. And each year, most of the birds that have made the assisted migration south, make the return migration to Necedah, keeping alive the hopes that as these birds mature and procreate, a new generation of whooping cranes will establish themselves along the eastern migratory flyway. Other whooping cranes are released in the company of older cranes to find their own migration route by following older, wiser birds.
Of the 14 birds that arrived in South Carolina in November 2004, seven remained to overwinter in the ACE Basin instead of continuing their migration on to Florida. Surely this was a fluke and residents of South Carolina would not see these birds again after their spring return to Wisconsin. Not quite.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Koches, USFWS
The fall of 2005 once again brought whooping cranes back to South Carolina. Four of the original 14 birds from 2004 returned to South Carolina to overwinter that year. And that has been the case every year since. The only thing that has changed over the years is that solitary birds are now pair-bonded, bringing with them the hope that one day adults will be accompanied by their young.
The fact that these beautiful creatures have chosen the ACE Basin is really no longer a mystery. As WCEP project trackers followed the bird’s radio signals into South Carolina, they were able to appreciate something from the air that the birds obviously sensed, as well: A patchwork of protected lands, sewn together by a common thread—a thread of conservation ethic.
“In the ACE Basin, these cranes can choose among so many great wetland habitats because private landowners, the state of South Carolina, and Federal agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service are doing such an outstanding job of protecting wetlands and being good environmental stewards,” says Ernie Wiggers, manager of a private plantation in the ACE Basin.
The ACE Basin Focus Area located along the coast between Charleston and Hilton Head has been one of the most successful land protection projects in the history of the country. A land protection effort lead primarily by private landowners, the ACE Basin Project has protected over 200,000 acres (approximately 81,000 hectares), to date.
“Obviously, having one of the most rare and beautiful birds in the world visit and spend time on your property is one of the great thrills in my life,” says Wiggers. “However, I am wise enough to know these birds would not be here if it was not for the great conservation ethic that has been demonstrated by so many surrounding landowners in the ACE Basin.”
A patchwork that consists of conservation easements, State Parks, State Wildlife Management Areas, a National Estuarine Research Reserve, and a National Wildlife Refuge, sewn together to protect something unique—the beauty and unparalleled richness of natural resources in the ACE Basin. The residents of this remarkable place knew it, and now the endangered whooping cranes know it. Protect it, and they will come.
Jennifer Koches, a public affairs specialist in the Service’s South Carolina Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 843-727-4707.
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