FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 20, 2001
Biologists will train a flock of about 10 young whooping cranes, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, to follow an ultralight aircraft across seven states from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Wisconsin to Chassahowitska NWR in Florida.
If all goes as planned, the birds will learn the migration route during the trip and return from Florida to Wisconsin on their own next spring, thereby establishing a second migratory whooping crane flock in North America.
Currently 174 whooping cranes migrate annually between wintering areas at Aransas NWR in Texas to nesting areas at Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Biologists long have been concerned that this population might be wiped out by a natural event such as a hurricane or a human-caused disaster such as a chemical or oil spill. Reintroducing a second migratory population in the East will provide insurance against such a disaster and move the species closer to recovery.
The experiment will be conducted by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a consortium that includes the Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, state agencies, conservation organizations and private citizens. Private donors are contributing more than half of the $1.3 million needed to complete the project. More than 40 private landowners have offered their property to be used as overnight sites for the migrating birds.
“This bold experiment is a model of how to recover an endangered species,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. “It combines innovative science, partnerships with local landowners and States, public and private funding, and reduced federal regulation. It could provide a blueprint for future recovery efforts for other threatened and endangered species.”
The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating mating call, is one of America’s best known and rarest endangered species. Cranes live and breed in extensive wetlands, where they feed upon crabs, clams, frogs, and other aquatic organisms. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown.
Biologists believe the species numbered in the thousands in North American at one time but loss of wetland habitat, hunting, and egg and specimen collecting brought about a sharp decline in the species. By 1890, no migratory whooping cranes remained in eastern North America, and by the 1940s the species was on the verge of extinction.
Today, as a result of an ongoing recovery program, 260 whooping cranes exist in the wild. This includes a reintroduced non-migratory flock of approximately 86 birds that lives year round in central Florida.
Biologists will commence the experiment in early July when approximately 10 whooping crane chicks raised at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center will be transferred to Necedah NWR. The birds will undergo three months of specialized training with ultralights, using the same techniques used successfully last year with a flock of sandhill cranes that were taught to fly the same migration route.
The experimental flock of whooping cranes should depart in mid-October and fly over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia on their way to Chassahowitzka NWR. Approximately 25 private, State and federal properties will be used as stopover points for the birds, aircraft and personnel. Daily updates, photographs and other information on the project will be available at www.bringbackthecranes.org.
The experiment is not without risk. Biologists are taking every step possible to ensure success, but some birds may be lost during the migration.
The National Wildlife Refuge System will play a major role in the reintroduction. Necedah NWR and Chassahowitzka NWR will serve as the flock’s release area and winter home respectively. Biologists expect refuges in the eastern United States to provide essential stopover habitat for the whooping cranes on their annual flight.
“We are proud that national wildlife refuges are playing such a pivotal role in bringing this magnificent bird back to eastern North America,” said Marshall Jones, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “What a fitting tribute it would be for the public to be able to see a second population of wild whoopers migrating through our refuges when we celebrate the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 100th anniversary in 2003.”
The Service submitted a final rule authorizing the experiment in the Federal Register today. The rule should be published by the end of the week (Federal Register Rules and Regulations). The agency also announced the availability of a final environmental assessment that analyzes the proposal and responds to both written public comments and those received this spring at a series of public meetings.
The reintroduced flock is being designated a nonessential, experimental population (NEP) under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. These states are within the known or suspected historic range of whooping cranes. However, it is expected that the birds will stay primarily in the migratory route between Wisconsin and Florida.
The NEP designation ensures that federal, state, tribal, or private actions that could result in the incidental death of or injury to a whooping crane in the course of otherwise lawful activities will not violate the Endangered Species Act.
As a result of the designation, ongoing activities such as outdoor recreation, agriculture and other land management practices within the 20-state reintroduction area will not be affected by the reintroduction. In addition, the rule specifies that no areas will be closed during hunting seasons and hunting seasons will not be modified to accommodate the experiment.
The intentional killing or harm of any NEP-designated whooping crane, however, would still be a violation of Federal law punishable under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Because of the huge scope and complexity of the project, a coalition of governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) in 1998. Founding members include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, International Crane Foundation, USGS/Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team. Many other flyway States, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and supported WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.
“This project would never have gotten off the ground without the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership,” said Jones. “Each organization has brought its expertise to the table and together mapped out a plan for success. It’s a real tribute to the difference that early collaboration and cooperation makes.”
Copies of the final environmental assessment and rule may be downloaded from the Worldwide Web at http://midwest.fws.gov/whoopingcrane, or requested in writing from Janet M. Smith, Field Supervisor, Green Bay Field Office, 1015 Challenger Court, Green Bay, Wisconsin 54311. Requests may also be faxed to 920-465-7410 or sent by e-mail to: whoopingcrane.fws.gov.
Secretary Norton expects to go to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to see the whooping crane chicks off before they are flown to Wisconsin. A date for this event has not been set at this time.
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 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource 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 fish and wildlife agencies.
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