Conserving the Nature of America

News Release


July 2, 2001


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

Marshall Jones, Acting Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and representatives from a host of partner organizations today visited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Patuxent Research Refuge and the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD, to observe ten whooping crane chicks learning to follow an ultralight aircraft as part of an historic effort to restore endangered whooping cranes to the East.

The month-old chicks will soon be transferred to Wisconsin to continue their flight training in preparation for the longest human-led migration study in history, 1,250 miles from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, scheduled to start in October. They are part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan, recently approved by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes into the East, where the last natural migratory flock disappeared 100 years ago.

"It is truly awe-inspiring to realize that this beautiful bird will once again grace our Eastern skies," Acting Director Jones said. "It is a tribute to how much we can accomplish when caring people work together in partnership to accomplish a great and worthy goal."

At Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, the birds will undergo three months of specialized training with the ultralights, using the same techniques used last year with a flock of sandhill cranes. The experimental flock of whooping cranes will depart Necedah in mid-October and fly through seven states on their way to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. 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

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the endangered whooping crane, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and today numbers only about 260 birds in the wild. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooping crane to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population that could lead to downlisting and eventual recovery.

The National Wildlife Refuge System is playing a lead role in the recovery of the whooping crane. Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast provides the principal wintering habitat for the hemispheres only migratory population. Refuges along the western migration route provide essential stopover habitat for the whooping cranes on their annual migrations between Aransas and breeding and summering habitat in Canada. Necedah NWR and Chassahowitzka NWR and numerous other refuges along the migration route in the East are expected to fill the same role if an eastern migratory flock is established.

"We are proud that national wildlife refuges are playing such a pivotal role in bringing this magnificent bird back to eastern North America." Jones added. "What a fitting tribute it would be to see wild whooping cranes on more refuges when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System in 2003."

Because of the huge scope and complexity of the project, which crosses numerous state lines and other lines of jurisdiction, a coalition of multiple government 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.

"Our research center has been raising whooping crane chicks in captivity for many years." said Jay Hestbeck, Acting Center Director at USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. "So it was natural that we would be founding partners in WCEP, along with Operation Migration Inc. who conducts the ultralight portion of the training."

The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating mating call, is one of Americas best known and rarest endangered species. The 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 unregulated shooting and habitat destruction caused the population to plummet to a low of about 21 birds in 1941. There are currently 187 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 75 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, 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.

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 which 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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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Joan Guilfoyle, 612-810-6797; Cindy Hoffman 202-208-3008; Chuck Underwood, 904-232-2580, extension 109; Jennifer Rabuck, 608-565-2551

U.S. Geological Survey: Catherine Puckett 703/648-7762; BH Powell, 301-497-5782

Operation Migration Inc.: Heather Ray, 1-800-675-2618 or 905-986-4384

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources: Dave Weitz, 715-839-3715

International Crane Foundation: Peter Murray, 608-356-9464, ext 153

Information contained in older news items may be outdated. These materials are made available as historical archival information only. Individual contacts have been replaced with general External Affairs office information. No other updates have been made to the information and we do not guarantee current accuracy or completeness.

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