FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 14, 2001
Six whooping cranes lifted off at 8:55 a.m. eastern standard time this morning from Meigs county, Tennessee and entered Gordon county, Georgia at 10:40 a.m. These majestic birds, the largest in North America, have been traveling since October 17, when they left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. They are following an ultralight plane that is teaching them a route that will encompass 1,250 miles to eventually arrive at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County, Florida.
The birds reached the halfway point on November 9, 2001 when they landed safely in Cumberland County, TN. Eight birds began this historic trip and six continue to fly each day. No. 3 died after flying into a power line the night of October 24 when the pen partially collapsed during extremely high winds in Green County, Wisconsin. Bird No. 4 dropped out halfway to the first stopover site and was retrieved later that afternoon. He has since been transported on the ground to each stopover site where he is released into the overnight pen with the other cranes. He flew with the flock for a short period in La Salle County, Illinois, for exercise and to try to assess his ability to follow the aircraft, but weather conditions have not yet been suitable to try him on another migration leg. The migration team thus has seven birds with them, six routinely flying with the ultralights.
"We are extremely pleased to see the migration going so well and to have these historic residents of the southeast back home again, " said Sam Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled species, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today numbers only about 260 birds in the wild. The continent's only migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast and is vulnerable to a catastrophic event such as a major hurricane, disease or oil spill. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooper to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population that could lead to downlisting and eventual recovery.
In 1998, a coalition of state and federal governments and the private sector formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to coordinate and fund last year's sandhill crane study and this year's whooping crane study. Over 35 private landowners have volunteered their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team. A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each morning's flight. The migration is expected to take from five to seven weeks.
"We are proud to be a partner in this exciting effort to restore this magnificent bird to Georgia's skies," said Terry Johnson, The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division's (DNR/WRD) Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program Manager. "The reintroduction of the eastern migratory flock of whooping cranes in Georgia is a prime example of what can be accomplished with strong state, federal and private partnerships," added Mike Harris, WRD's Nongame Wildlife-Natural Heritage Section Chief.
The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. This species lives and breeds in extensive wetlands, where it feeds 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.
Never very numerous, whooping cranes were thought to number historically between 700 and 1,400 in North America, before habitat destruction and unregulated hunting caused the population to plummet to a low of 16 birds in 1941. There are currently 180 birds in the only natural remaining wild flock, which breeds in Canada and winters on the Texas gulf coast, at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A second non-migratory flock of approximately 80 lives year round in central Florida, as part of a separate and ongoing reintroduction effort.
In recent decades, the only remaining natural whooping crane population has slowly increased as a result of conservation efforts. However, the species' survival is still in question, due to the threat of accidental collisions with wires and fences, extreme weather events, possible oil and chemical spills, and numerous other threats. The species is particularly vulnerable on its wintering grounds along the Texas Gulf Coast due to the large percentage of the population occurring within a small area.
Founding members of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are the International Crane Foundation, International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS/Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and Madison Wildlife Health Center, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Many other flyway States, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and supported WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.
"We started training ten birds in April." said Joe Duff, lead pilot, trainer and co-founder of Operation Migration Inc. "Those remaining in the study were selected for their overall suitability in terms of strength in flying and successfully following the aircraft."
For daily updates, press kits and protocol for how to access the migration team on the road, go to the Media Button at www.bringbackthecranes.org.
Departure Contact: Chuck Underwood, USFWS 904-910-6254The 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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