U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service | Southeast Region News Release
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SANDHILL CRANE MIGRATION LAYS FOUNDATION FOR POTENTIAL WHOOPING CRANE REINTRODUCTION

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

October 4, 2000

Contact:

Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (404) 679-7291

Chuck Underwood, USFWS (Cell) 904-910-625

Chris Tollefson, USFWS 202-208-5634

Ultralight aircraft took off from a national wildlife refuge in Wisconsin yesterday, leading a flock of sandhill cranes on an experimental migration that could pave the way for a potentially ambitious recovery effort involving similar flights with whooping cranes.

The 13 sandhill crane chicks have been exposed to aircraft noise by researchers since hatching and reared in extreme isolation from humans at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. After undergoing months of specialized handling designed to get them accustomed to following the ultralight aircraft, the sandhill cranes have begun a journey through seven states that will take them to their wintering grounds at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife is considering the designation and reintroduction of a nonessential experimental migratory flock of whooping cranes into the eastern United States. If the sandhill crane migration study is successful this fall and the birds complete the journey to Florida and return on their own to Wisconsin in the spring of 2001, the same training procedures and route could be used with whooping crane chicks. If all goes as planned and necessary support is obtained from the Flyway Councils, States and other involved agencies, the study may potentially lead to the re-establishment of a migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States.

"With just over 400 whooping cranes in existence, and with only one migratory flock in the wild, the establishment of a second migratory flock is vitally important to the survival and recovery of one of North America's most endangered species and the world's most endangered crane. The steps we take this fall with sandhill cranes could lay the foundation for the return of a whooping crane migration to the East," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark.

If the sandhill crane migration is successful, the proposed whooping crane migration may follow the same established migration route, passing through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia before arriving in central Florida. The proposed migration would also cover from 50 to 70 miles per day on days when weather conditions permit flight, reaching Chassahowitzka NWR in approximately 32 days. Ultralight aircraft will be used because they fly at low altitudes and at speeds slow enough to lead migrating birds.

Reliance on humans jeopardizes the ability of any wild animal to survive on its own, and whooping cranes are especially vulnerable because of their small population. In order to test and establish methods that can be used with whooping cranes, every effort has been made to restrict the sandhill cranes' contact with humans in order to prevent the birds from becoming too tame and relying on human care for their survival. The sandhill cranes have been raised by humans in costumes that disguise the human form, using mechanical hand puppets designed to look like adult sandhill cranes. The birds have never seen the pilots of the ultralights out of costume. These restrictions on human contact will continue during the birds' migration and with the whooping cranes in the near future.

Clark cautioned that despite the preparations made, the sandhill crane migration's successful conclusion is not a certainty. "We've worked hard to put together a solid partnership and enlist the help of state wildlife agencies across the migration route. But this is an extraordinarily difficult operation, and it's never been done before on this scale, or for such high stakes," she said.

Whooping cranes were probably always rare, with a population estimated at 500 to 700 individuals in 1870. Nonetheless, they ranged across North America from Utah to the Atlantic Coast, breeding in central Canada and the northern U.S. and wintering from the Carolinas to Texas. As a consequence of unregulated hunting and specimen collection, human disturbance, and conversion of their primary nesting habitat to hay, pastureland, and grain production, the whooping crane population faced extinction by 1941, with only 21 birds remaining.

Today, after decades of captive breeding and the 1993 reintroduction of a nonmigratory population in central Florida, there are 411 whooping cranes in North America, with 266 of those birds in the wild. Of these, there is only one remaining migratory flock of 187 whooping cranes in the wild, migrating between Wood Buffalo National Park, Northwest Territories, Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas. The Endangered Species Act recovery plan for the whooping crane requires that a second flock of migratory birds be established, because the Texas flock remains vulnerable to oil spills, disease outbreaks, declining food resources on their wintering grounds, and collisions with power lines.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, composed of: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It was formed in October of 1999 to coordinate the sandhill crane migration and to assist in and help coordinate the potential proposed whooping crane reintroduction.

Daily updates, news releases, graphics migration tracking and partnership links are available online at the Service's web site at http://bringbackthecranes.fws.gov.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93- million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of 525 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to State wildlife agencies.

NOTE: You can view our releases or subscribe to receive them -- via e-mail -- at the Service's Southeast Regional home page at http:/southeast.fws.gov. Our national home page is at: http://www.fws.gov.

Atlanta, GA 30345

Phone: 404/679-7289 Fax: 404/679-7286

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