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Journeying Toward Recovery
Dramatic conservation efforts bring whooping crane back from the brink
by Lesli Gray and Wade Harrell
Photo Credit: Kevin Sims © 2017
One of the nation's most iconic endangered species, the whooping crane (Grus americana), faced a pivotal time in the mid- to late-1960s. Only 50 of the famed birds existed then—43 wintered at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and seven were held in captivity.
It's understandable that these majestic birds would be one of the first species to gain federal protection in 1967 under the Endangered Species Preservation Act, a precursor to today's Endangered Species Act. That same year, Aransas NWR celebrated its 30th anniversary. It was established in 1937 by Franklin D. Roosevelt to benefit waterfowl migrating along the Central Flyway, although whooping cranes had been previously known to spend winters there for generations.
Congress recognized the dire situation. In 1966, legislators allocated $350,000 to establish special research projects at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (WRC) in Maryland aimed at lifting some of the nation's most imperiled animals from the brink of extinction. For the whooping crane, it would be a captive breeding program that would begin the species' long journey toward recovery.
On May 23, 1967, Ray Erickson from Patuxent WRC and Ernie Kuyt from the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) collected three eggs from whooping crane nests at Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park and delivered them to Patuxent WRC to start the captive breeding flock. This was a landmark—the first time whooping crane eggs had ever been collected from wild nests. Only a decade or so earlier did scientists discover the summer home and nesting area for whooping cranes.
During the 1970s, two major efforts to help recover the species were undertaken. In 1975, the first whooping crane reintroduction attempt was made in Idaho. Scientists placed whooping crane eggs collected from Wood Buffalo National Park and from the captive flock at Patuxent WRC in sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) nests at Gray's Lake NWR. Astoundingly, the sandhill cranes raised the whooping cranes as their own—the young birds even followed the migration routes of their surrogate parents. That next year, the first International Whooping Crane Recovery Team was established – with experts from both Canada and the United States – to help guide the CWS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) in their efforts to conserve the species. In 1980, the first recovery plan was published by the Service, and in 1985, the first International Memorandum of Understanding between Canada and the United States outlined how the two countries would work together to recover whooping cranes.
Increasing and expanding the crane population remain top priorities for the Service and its partners. In 2001, the Service established a second migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States and designated it as a "non-essential, experimental population." Young-of-the-year whooping cranes raised in captivity were taught to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida, following ultralight gliders. Almost nine years later, the Service, working with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, reintroduced a non-migratory population of whooping cranes in southwestern Louisiana at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. The birds had been extirpated from there in 1950.
Through the hard work and dedication of many, the whooping crane is rebounding. The Service estimates 329 wild whooping cranes graced the wintering grounds on and around Aransas NWR in the winter of 2015-2016, and this population continues to grow roughly four percent each year. There are now 103 individuals in the Eastern Migratory Population, 59 in Louisiana, 14 in Florida, and 201 in numerous captive facilities in the United States and Canada for a total of about 700 whooping cranes.
Credit: Operation Migration
While many threats to whooping crane recovery still exist, the species fares far better than from its low point in the 1960s. One of the biggest concerns about the growing wild population wintering around Aransas NWR is whether there will be sufficient coastal marsh habitat in the future to support a growing population. Sea level rise associated with climate change is expected to inundate current whooping crane wintering habitat. Similarly, changes in breeding habitat at Wood Buffalo National Park associated with a warming climate may slow population growth. Much has changed for whooping cranes in the last 50 years, but conserving their natural habitat throughout their range is still a primary conservation focus.
The whooping crane recovery story illustrates that the Endangered Species Act works. Endangered species recovery is complex and difficult work, often requiring substantial time and resources. Just as the decline of species occurs over the course of years and decades, it takes time and solid cooperation of partners to bring them back.
Lesli Gray, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist for the state of Texas, can be reached at email@example.com or 972-439-4542.
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