[Federal Register Volume 76, Number 23 (Thursday, February 3, 2011)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 6066-6082]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2011-2367]



Fish and Wildlife Service

50 CFR Part 17

[Docket No. FWS-R4-ES-2010-0057; 92220-1113-0000-C3]
RIN 1018-AX23

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Establishment of a 
Nonessential Experimental Population of Endangered Whooping Cranes in 
Southwestern Louisiana

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Final rule.


SUMMARY: We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), will 
reintroduce whooping cranes (Grus americana) into historic habitat in 
southwestern Louisiana with the intent to establish a nonmigratory 
flock. We are designating this reintroduced population as a 
nonessential experimental population (NEP) under section 10(j) of the 
Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), as amended. The geographic 
boundary of the NEP includes the entire State of Louisiana. The 
objectives of the reintroduction are: to advance recovery of the 
endangered whooping crane; to implement a primary recovery action; to 
further assess the suitability of Louisiana as whooping crane habitat; 
and to evaluate the merit of releasing captive-reared whooping cranes, 
conditioned for wild release, as a technique for establishing a self-
sustaining, nonmigratory population. The only natural wild population 
of whooping cranes remains vulnerable to extirpation through a natural 
catastrophe or contaminant spill, due primarily to its limited 
wintering distribution along the Texas gulf coast. If successful, this 
action will result in the establishment of an additional self-
sustaining population, and contribute toward the recovery of the 
species. No conflicts are envisioned between the whooping crane's 
reintroduction and any existing or anticipated Federal, State, Tribal, 
local government, or private actions such as agriculture-aquaculture-
livestock practices, oil/gas exploration and extraction, pesticide 
application, water management, construction, recreation, trapping, or 

DATES: This rule is effective February 3, 2011.

ADDRESSES: The complete administrative file for this rule is available 
for inspection, by appointment, during normal business hours at the 
Jacksonville Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 7915 
Baymeadows Way, Suite 200, Jacksonville, FL 32256-7517.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Bill Brooks, Jacksonville Field 
Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (904-731-3136, facsimile 904-
731-3045), or Deborah Fuller, Lafayette Field Office, U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service (337-291-3100; facsimile 337-291-3139).



Previous Federal Actions

    The whooping crane (Grus americana) was listed as an endangered 
species on March 11, 1967 (32 FR 4001). We have previously designated 
NEPs for whooping cranes in Florida (58 FR 5647, January 22, 1993); the 
Rocky Mountains (62 FR 38932, July 21, 1997); and the Eastern United 
States (66 FR 33903, June 26, 2001). On August 19, 2010, we proposed 
designating Louisiana as a NEP to reintroduce a nonmigratory population 
in southwestern Louisiana (75 FR 51223). See also ``Recovery Efforts'' 
    Congress made significant changes to the Endangered Species Act of 
1973, as amended (ESA) (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), with the addition in 
1982 of section 10(j), which provides for the designation of specific 
reintroduced populations of listed species as ``experimental 
populations.'' Under the ESA, species listed as endangered or 
threatened are afforded protection largely through the prohibitions of 
section 9 and the

[[Page 6067]]

requirements of section 7 and corresponding implementing regulations.
    Section 7 of the ESA outlines the procedures for Federal 
interagency cooperation to conserve Federally listed species and 
protect designated critical habitats. Under Section 7(a)(1), all 
Federal agencies are mandated to determine how to use their existing 
authorities to further the purposes of the ESA to aid in recovering 
listed species. Section 7(a)(2) states that Federal agencies will, in 
consultation with the Service, ensure that any action they authorize, 
fund, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence 
of a listed species or result in the destruction or adverse 
modification of designated critical habitat. Section 7 of the ESA does 
not affect activities undertaken on private lands unless they are 
authorized, funded, or carried out by a Federal agency.
    Under section 10(j), the Secretary of the Department of the 
Interior can designate reintroduced populations established outside the 
species' current range, but within its historical range, as 
``experimental.'' Section 10(j) is designed to increase our flexibility 
in managing an experimental population by allowing us to treat the 
population as threatened, regardless of the species' designation 
elsewhere in its range. A threatened designation allows us discretion 
in devising management programs and special regulations for such a 
population. Section 9 of the ESA prohibits the take of endangered 
species. ``Take'' is defined by the ESA as ``to harass, harm, pursue, 
hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to 
engage in any such conduct.'' Section 4(d) of the ESA allows us to 
adopt whatever regulations are necessary and advisable to provide for 
the conservation of a threatened species. When we promulgate a section 
10(j) rule for a species, the general regulations that extend most 
section 9 prohibitions to threatened species do not apply as the 10(j) 
rule contains the prohibitions and exemptions necessary and appropriate 
to conserve that species.
    Based on the best available information, we must determine whether 
experimental populations are ``essential'' or ``nonessential'' to the 
continued existence of the species. Both an experimental population 
that is essential to the survival of the species and an experimental 
population that is not essential to the survival of the species are 
treated as a threatened species. However, for section 7 interagency 
cooperation purposes, if a nonessential experimental population 
(``NEP'') is located outside of a National Wildlife Refuge or National 
Park, it is treated as a species proposed for listing.
    For the purposes of section 7 of the ESA, in situations where an 
NEP is located within a National Wildlife Refuge or National Park, the 
NEP is treated as threatened, and all provisions of ESA section 7, 
including section 7(a)(1) and the consultation requirements of section 
7(a)(2), apply.
    When NEPs are located outside a National Wildlife Refuge or 
National Park Service unit, we treat the population as proposed for 
listing, and only two provisions of section 7 apply--section 7(a)(1) 
and section 7(a)(4). In these instances, NEPs provide additional 
flexibility because Federal agencies are not required to consult with 
us under section 7(a)(2). Section 7(a)(4) requires Federal agencies to 
confer (rather than consult) with the Service on actions that are 
likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a species proposed to 
be listed. The results of a conference are in the form of conservation 
recommendations that are optional as the agencies carry out, fund, or 
authorize activities. However, since an NEP is not essential to the 
continued existence of the species, it is very unlikely that we would 
ever determine jeopardy for a project impacting a species within an 
NEP. Regulations for NEPs may be developed to be more compatible with 
routine human activities in the reintroduction area.
    Individuals used to establish an experimental population may come 
from a donor population, provided their removal is not likely to 
jeopardize the continued existence of the species, and appropriate 
permits are issued in accordance with our regulations (50 CFR 17.22) 
prior to their removal. We will ensure, through our section 10 
permitting authority and the section 7 consultation process, that the 
use of individuals from donor populations for release is not likely to 
jeopardize the continued existence of the species in the wild.

Biological Information

    The whooping crane is a member of the family Gruidae (cranes). It 
is the tallest bird in North America; males approach 1.5 meters (m) (5 
feet (ft)) tall. In captivity, adult males average 7.3 kilograms (kg) 
(16 pounds (lb)) and females 6.4 kg (14 lbs). Adult plumage is snowy 
white except for black primary feathers, black or grayish alulae, 
sparse black bristly feathers on the carmine (red) crown and malar 
region (side of the head), and a dark gray-black wedge-shaped patch on 
the nape.
    Adults are potentially long-lived. Current estimates suggest a 
maximum longevity in the wild of 32 years (Stehn, USFWS, 2010 pers 
comm.). Captive individuals are known to have survived 27 to 40 years. 
Mating is characterized as perennially monogamous (remaining paired for 
multiple years); however, new pair bonds can be formed following death 
or other interruptions in the pair bond. Fertile eggs are occasionally 
produced at age 3 years but more typically at age 4. Experienced pairs 
may not breed every year, especially when habitat conditions are poor. 
Whooping cranes ordinarily lay two eggs. They will renest if their 
first clutch is destroyed or lost before mid-incubation (Erickson and 
Derrickson 1981, p. 108; Kuyt 1981, p. 123). Although two eggs are 
laid, whooping crane pairs infrequently fledge two chicks (Canadian 
Wildlife Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2007, p. 6). 
Approximately one of every four hatched chicks survives to reach the 
wintering grounds (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1994, p. 14).
    The whooping crane once occurred from the Arctic Sea to the high 
plateau of central Mexico, and from Utah east to New Jersey, South 
Carolina, and Florida (Allen 1952, p. 1; Nesbitt 1982, p. 151). In the 
19th century, the principal breeding range extended from central 
Illinois northwest through northern Iowa, western Minnesota, 
northeastern North Dakota, southern Manitoba, and Saskatchewan to the 
vicinity of Edmonton, Alberta. There was also a nonmigratory population 
breeding in coastal Louisiana (Allen 1952, p. 28; Gomez 1992, p. 19).
    Banks (1978, p. 1) derived estimates that there were 500 to 700 
whooping cranes in 1870. By 1941, the migratory population contained 
only 16 individuals. The whooping crane population decline between 
these two estimates was a consequence of hunting and specimen 
collection, human disturbance, and conversion of the primary nesting 
habitat to hay, pastureland, and grain production (Allen 1952, p. 28; 
Erickson and Derrickson 1981, p. 108).
    Allen (1952, pp. 18-40, 94) described several historical migration 
routes. One of the most important led from the principal nesting 
grounds in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Manitoba to 
coastal Louisiana. Other historic Gulf coast wintering locations 
included Mobile Bay in Alabama, and Bay St. Louis in Mississippi. A 
route from the nesting grounds in North Dakota and the Canadian 
Provinces went southward to the wintering areas of Texas and the Rio 
Grande Delta

[[Page 6068]]

region of Mexico. Another migration route crossed the Appalachians to 
the Atlantic Coast.
    Gomez (1992, p. 19) summarized the literary references regarding 
whooping cranes in southwestern Louisiana. This summary included 
Olmsted's mention of an ``immense white crane'' on the prairies of 
Louisiana (1861, p. 31), Nelson (1929, pp. 146-147) reporting on 
wintering whooping cranes near Pecan Island, and McIlhenny (1938, p. 
670) describing the small flock of resident cranes at Avery Island and 
speculating on the reasons for the species' decline. Simons (1937, p. 
220) included a photograph; Allen (1950, pp. 194-195) and Van Pelt 
(1950, p. 22) recounted the capture of the last member of the Louisiana 
nonmigratory flock. Allen's whooping crane monograph (1952) is the main 
source on whooping crane ecology in southwest Louisiana.
    Records from more interior areas include the Montgomery, Alabama, 
area; Crocketts Bluff on the White River, and a site near Corning in 
Arkansas; Missouri sites in Jackson County near Kansas City, in 
Lawrence County near Corning, southwest of Springfield in Audrain 
County, and near St. Louis; and Kentucky sites near Louisville and 
Hickman. It is unknown whether these records represent wintering 
locations, remnants of a nonmigratory population, or wandering birds.

Status of Current Populations

    Whooping cranes currently exist in three wild populations and 
within a captive breeding population at 12 locations. The first 
population, and the only self-sustaining natural wild population, nests 
in the Northwest Territories and adjacent areas of Alberta, Canada, 
primarily within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park. These 
birds winter along the central Texas Gulf of Mexico coast at Aransas 
National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and adjacent areas (referred to later as 
the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population, or AWBP). From their nesting areas 
in Canada, these cranes migrate southeasterly through Alberta, 
Saskatchewan, and eastern Manitoba, stopping in southern Saskatchewan 
for several weeks in fall migration before continuing migration into 
the United States. They migrate through the Great Plains States of 
eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, 
Oklahoma, and Texas. The winter habitat extends 50 kilometers (km) (31 
miles) along the Texas coast, from San Jose Island and Lamar Peninsula 
on the south to Welder Point and Matagorda Island on the north, and 
consists of estuarine marshes, shallow bays, and tidal flats (Allen 
1952, p. 127; Blankinship 1976, p. 384). Their spring migration is more 
rapid, and they simply reverse the route followed in fall. The AWBP 
flock is recovering from a population low of 15 or 16 birds in 1941. 
The natural AWBP flock was estimated to be around 500-700 individuals 
around 1870 and in 1944 it numbered 18 birds. This notable decline in 
numbers was due in large part to human related impacts like hunting and 
wetland loss. Through extensive protection and recovery efforts, the 
AWBP flock has slowly increased over time. In 2005, the population had 
220 individuals. The population continues to grow with 247 cranes 
observed in the spring of 2009 and 263 in the spring of 2010. With 46 
chicks fledging from a record high of 74 nests in August 2010, the 
flock size could reach a record level of around 285 whooping cranes in 
the spring of 2011.
    The second population, the Florida Nonmigratory Population, is 
found in the Kissimmee Prairie area of central Florida (see Recovery 
Efforts section for further details on this population and the Eastern 
Migratory Population). Between 1993 and 2004, 289 captive-born, 
isolation-reared whooping cranes were released into Osceola, Lake, and 
Polk Counties in an effort to establish this nonmigratory flock. The 
last releases took place in the winter of 2004-2005. As of November 
2010, only 21 individuals were being monitored, which included 8 pairs. 
Since the first nest attempt in 1999, there have been a total of 81 
nest attempts, from which 37 chicks hatched and only 11 chicks 
successfully fledged. Problems with survival and reproduction, both of 
which have been complicated by drought, are the factors that led to the 
2009 decision not to release additional whooping cranes into this 
    The third population of wild whooping cranes is referred to as the 
Eastern Migratory Population (EMP). The EMP has been established 
through reintroduction, and, with the November 2010 addition of 11 
released whooping cranes, the population numbers 105 individuals. 
During the 2010 spring breeding season, all early nests of the season 
were abandoned, as have all first nests during the previous years. 
There were 12 nesting pairs in 2010; 5 of those pairs hatched 7 chicks, 
2 pairs successfully fledged a chick. Nesting failure is currently the 
EMP's foremost concern. There is compelling evidence of a correlation 
between the presence of biting insects and nesting failure, suggesting 
that biting insects may play a role in nest abandonment (Stehn, USFWS, 
2009 pers. com.).
    The whooping crane also occurs in a captive-breeding population. 
The whooping crane captive-breeding program, initiated in 1967, has 
been very successful. The Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service 
began taking eggs from the nests of the wild population (AWBP) in 1967, 
and raising the resulting young in captivity. Between 1967 and 1998, 
program officials took 242 eggs from the wild to captive sites. Birds 
raised from those eggs form the nucleus of the captive flock (USFWS 
2007, p. C-2). The captive-breeding population is now kept at five 
captive-breeding centers: Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 
Patuxent, Maryland; the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, 
Wisconsin; the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Center, Calgary Zoo, in 
Alberta, Canada; the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans, 
Louisiana; and the San Antonio Zoo, Texas. The total captive population 
as of January 2010 stands near 150 birds in the captive-breeding 
centers and at other locations for display (Calgary Zoo in Alberta, 
Canada; Lowery Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida; Homosassa Springs State 
Wildlife Park in Homosassa, Florida; Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 
Jacksonville, Florida; Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana; Milwaukee 
Zoo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park in 
Scotland Neck, North Carolina).
    Whooping cranes adhere to ancestral breeding areas, migratory 
routes, and wintering grounds, leaving little possibility of pioneering 
into new regions. The only wild, self-sustaining breeding population 
can be expected to continue utilizing its current nesting location with 
little likelihood of expansion, except on a local geographic scale. The 
wintering area is expected to expand slowly north and south from 
Aransas along the Gulf Coast. This population remains vulnerable to 
extirpation from a natural catastrophe, a red tide outbreak, a 
contaminant spill, and sea level rise due primarily to its limited 
wintering distribution along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway of the 
Texas coast. This waterway experiences some of the heaviest barge 
traffic of any waterway in the world. Much of the shipping tonnage is 
petrochemical products. An accidental spill could destroy whooping 
cranes, their habitat, and/or their food resources. With the only wild 
breeding population (AWBP) being vulnerable, it is urgent that 
additional wild self-sustaining populations be established.
    There have been three reintroduction projects to date. 
Reintroduction using cross-fostering with sandhill cranes

[[Page 6069]]

(Grus canadensis) in the Rocky Mountains occurred during the period 
1973-1988, and was discontinued due to excessive mortality and failure 
of the birds to pair and breed. No cranes remain in this population. 
The Florida nonmigratory population numbers 21 birds (9 males, 12 
females). Only two pairs attempted to breed during the 2009 drought, 
and one pair fledged a chick. In 2010, there were nine nests and one 
pair fledged a chick. Currently, the EMP numbers 105 whooping cranes. 
Twelve pairs nested in 2010 and two pairs fledged a chick.

Recovery Efforts

    The first recovery plan developed by the Whooping Crane Recovery 
Team (Recovery Team) was approved January 23, 1980. The first revision 
was approved on December 23, 1986; the second revision on February 11, 
1994; and the third revision on May 29, 2007 (viewable at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/). The short-term goal of the recovery plan, as 
revised, is to reclassify the whooping crane from endangered to 
threatened status. The criteria for attaining this reclassification 
goal are: (1) Achieving a population level of 40 nesting pairs in the 
AWBP; and (2) establishing two additional, separate, and self-
sustaining populations consisting of 25 nesting pairs each. These new 
populations may be migratory or nonmigratory. If only one additional 
wild self-sustaining population is reestablished, then the AWBP must 
reach 100 nesting pairs and the new population must consist of 30 
nesting pairs. If the establishment of two additional wild self-
sustaining populations is not successful, then the AWBP must be self-
sustaining and remain above 250 nesting pairs for reclassification to 
occur. The recovery plan recommends that these goals should be attained 
for 10 consecutive years before the species is reclassified to 
    In 1985, the Director-General of the Canadian Wildlife Service and 
the Director of the Service signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) 
entitled ``Conservation of the Whooping Crane Related to Coordinated 
Management Activities.'' The MOU was revised and signed again in 1990, 
1995, and 2001. It discusses disposition of birds and eggs, postmortem 
analysis, population restoration and objectives, new population sites, 
international management, recovery plans, consultation, and 
coordination. All captive whooping cranes and their future progeny are 
jointly owned by the Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. 
Consequently, both nations are involved in recovery decisions.


    In early 1984, pursuant to the Recovery Plan goals and the 
recommendation of the Recovery Team, potential whooping crane release 
areas were selected in the eastern United States. By 1988, the Recovery 
Team recognized that cross-fostering with sandhill cranes was not 
working to establish a migratory population in the Rocky Mountains. The 
term ``cross-fostering'' refers to the foster rearing of the whooping 
crane chicks by another species, the sandhill crane. The possibility of 
inappropriate sexual imprinting associated with cross-fostering, and 
the lack of a proven technique for establishing a migratory flock, 
influenced the Recovery Team to favor establishing a nonmigratory 
    Studies of whooping cranes (Drewien and Bizeau 1977, pp. 201-218) 
and greater sandhill cranes (Nesbitt 1988, p. 44) have shown that, for 
these species, knowing when and where to migrate is learned rather than 
innate behavior. Captive-reared whooping cranes released in Florida 
were expected to develop a sedentary population. In summer 1988, the 
Recovery Team selected Kissimmee Prairie in central Florida as the area 
most suitable to establish a self-sustaining population. In 1993, the 
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) (formerly the 
Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission) began releasing chicks 
from the captive-breeding population in an attempt to establish a 
resident, nonmigratory flock. Eggs laid at the captive-breeding 
facilities were sent to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to be 
hatched and reared in isolation. The chicks were brought to Florida in 
the fall where they were ``gentle released,'' a technique that involves 
a protracted period of acclimation in a specially constructed release 
pen followed by a gradual transition to life on their own in the wild. 
This release methodology has helped to establish a wild resident 
nonmigratory flock of whooping cranes in central Florida.
    In 1996, the Recovery Team decided to investigate the potential for 
another reintroduction site in the eastern United States, with the 
intent of establishing an additional migratory population as the third 
flock to meet recovery goals. Following a study of potential wintering 
sites (Cannon 1998, pp. 1-19), the Recovery Team selected the 
Chassahowitzka NWR/St. Martin's Marsh Aquatic Preserve in Florida as 
the top wintering site for a new migratory flock of whooping cranes. A 
detailed analysis was presented at the Recovery Team meeting in 
September 1999 (Cannon 1999, pp. 1-38), and the Recovery Team then 
recommended that releases for an EMP target central Wisconsin at 
Necedah NWR as the core breeding area, with the wintering site along 
the Gulf coast of Florida at the Chassahowitzka NWR.
    In January 2001, the Recovery Team met at the Audubon Center for 
Research on Endangered Species in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Highlights 
of the meeting included genetic management recommendations for the 
captive flock, an overflight of crane habitat in southwestern 
Louisiana, including the White Lake and Marsh Island areas, and the 
recommendation to proceed with a migratory reintroduction of whooping 
cranes in the eastern United States. Following the Recovery Team 
meeting, the Louisiana Crane Working Group was formed to help with 
research and information needed to assess the potential for releasing 
whooping cranes in Louisiana.
    In the spring of 2001, eggs laid at the captive-breeding facilities 
were sent to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to be hatched and 
reared in the spring. The chicks were brought to the Necedah NWR in 
central Wisconsin in the early summer and were trained to fly behind 
ultralight aircraft by Operation Migration. In the fall of 2001, the 
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's (WCEP) first historic whooping 
crane migration led by ultralights from central Wisconsin to the 
central Gulf coast of Florida was completed by Operation Migration. 
This release methodology has established a wild migrating flock of 
whooping cranes, with a core breeding/summering area at Necedah NWR in 
central Wisconsin and a primary wintering area in west-central Florida 
(Pasco and Citrus Counties and Paynes Prairie in Alachua County). 
Portions of this population also winter at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in 
central Tennessee, Wheeler NWR in northern Alabama, and the Ashepoo, 
Combahee, and South Edisto Basin (ACE Basin) in coastal South Carolina. 
Since 2005, additional captive chicks reared at the International Crane 
Foundation have been released directly into groups of older whooping 
cranes in central Wisconsin prior to the fall to follow older cranes 
during migration.
    In 2004, the Florida FWC and the Recovery Team made the decision to 
postpone additional releases in the Florida nonmigratory flock. Between 
1993 and 2004, program members released 289 captive-reared birds in an 
attempt to establish a Florida

[[Page 6070]]

nonmigratory flock. Problems with survival and reproduction, both of 
which have been complicated by drought, were considered major 
challenges for this flock. The Florida FWC postponed releases to focus 
their resources to study these issues.
    In 2005, two members of the Recovery Team met with the Louisiana 
Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (DWF) and the Louisiana Crane 
Working Group to develop a plan to investigate the feasibility of a 
whooping crane reintroduction in Louisiana. In February 2007, a 
Recovery Team meeting was held in Lafayette, Louisiana, to assess the 
status of whooping crane recovery efforts. This meeting included 
updates and recovery action recommendations for the AWBP, Florida, and 
EMP populations. In addition, the Recovery Team also came to Louisiana 
to further evaluate the interest in releasing whooping cranes in 
Louisiana. A preliminary assessment of the habitat for a resident 
nonmigratory flock and wintering habitat for a migratory flock was 
conducted during field visits to White Lake and Marsh Island. The 
Recovery Team endorsed a plan that could lead to a reintroduction of 
whooping cranes in Louisiana. The Recovery Team recommended that the 
Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit of the U.S. 
Geological Survey conduct a habitat assessment and food availability 
study at White Lake as a potential release area for a nonmigratory 
population and Marsh Island as a potential wintering area for a 
migratory flock of whooping cranes. Additional research on sandhill 
crane migration patterns for cranes that winter in Louisiana was also 
recommended. The Recovery Team also requested the Whooping Crane Health 
Advisory Team prepare a report on the potential health risks if 
whooping cranes reintroduced into Louisiana were to mix with cranes in 
the AWBP.
    In 2008, scientists from Florida FWC and major project partners 
conducted a workshop to assess the current status and potential for 
success of establishing the resident nonmigratory population of 
whooping cranes in Florida. The Recovery Team used the workshop 
findings and other considerations, and in 2009 recommended there be no 
further releases into the Florida flock. The water regimes produced by 
periodic droughts in Florida make it extremely unlikely that 
reproduction in wild-hatched Florida whooping cranes will ever achieve 
production rates adequate for success. The Florida FWC continues to 
study and monitor the remaining nonmigratory whooping cranes to gather 
information that may prove valuable for future recovery efforts.
    Nesting failure is currently the foremost concern with the EMP. 
WCEP's nest monitoring efforts and additional studies in 2009 and 2010 
have provided compelling but inconclusive evidence of the presence of 
biting insects at the nests as a contributing factor to nest 
    In August of 2009, the Service met with the Louisiana DWF to 
discuss establishing a possible resident nonmigratory population of 
whooping cranes in Louisiana. In April 2010, the U.S. representatives 
of the Recovery Team met with Louisiana DWF at the White Lake Wetlands 
Conservation Area (WLWCA) to discuss the proposed reintroduction in 
southwestern Louisiana. This meeting included an aerial overflight of 
southwestern Louisiana and an airboat tour of the potential crane 
habitat and release area at the WLWCA. In a June 17, 2010, letter to 
the Louisiana DWF, the Recovery Team endorsed a reintroduction of 
nonmigratory whooping cranes into their historic range at White Lake, 

Objectives of the Reintroduction

    The objectives of this reintroduction into Louisiana are to: (1) 
Advance recovery of the endangered whooping crane; (2) implement a 
primary recovery action for the whooping crane; (3) further assess the 
suitability of southwestern Louisiana as whooping crane habitat; and 
(4) evaluate the suitability of releasing captive and parent-reared 
whooping cranes, conditioned for wild release, as a technique for 
establishing a self-sustaining, nonmigratory population. Information on 
survival of released birds, movements, behavior, causes of losses, 
reproductive success, and other data will be gathered throughout the 
project. This reintroduction project's progress will be evaluated 
    The likelihood of the releases resulting in a self-sustaining 
population is believed to be good. Whooping cranes historically 
occurred in Louisiana in both a resident nonmigratory flock and a 
migratory flock that wintered in Louisiana. The White Lake area is the 
location where whooping cranes were historically documented raising 
young in Louisiana (Gomez 1992, p. 20). The minimum goal for numbers of 
cranes to be released annually is based on the research of Griffith et 
al. (1989, pp. 477-480). If results of this initial planned release are 
favorable, releases will be continued with the goal of releasing up to 
30 whooping cranes annually for about 10 years. For a long-lived 
species like the whooping crane, continuing releases for a number of 
years increases the likelihood of reaching a population level that can 
persist under fluctuating environmental conditions. The rearing and 
release techniques to be used have proven successful in releasing 
whooping cranes into Florida and supplementing the wild population of 
the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla).
    We may select additional release sites later during the efforts to 
reintroduce nonmigratory whooping cranes to Louisiana to reduce the 
risk of catastrophic loss of the population. Additional release sites 
could also increase the potential breeding range in Louisiana. Multiple 
release areas may increase the opportunity for successful pairing, 
because females tend to disperse from their natal site when searching 
for a mate. Males, however, have a stronger homing tendency toward 
establishing their nesting territory near the natal area (Drewien et 
al. 1983, p. 9). When captive-reared birds are released at a wild 
location, the birds may view the release site as a natal area. If they 
do, females would likely disperse away from the release area in their 
search for a mate. Therefore, it may be advantageous to have several 
release sites to provide a broader distribution of territorial males. 
As a result, it is possible that we will pursue future releases at 
additional sites. These additional sites would be selected based on the 
observed dispersal patterns of birds from the initial releases.
    The Louisiana DWF discussed this proposed experimental population 
with the Mississippi Flyway Council. The Service discussed this 
proposed experimental population with the Central Flyway Council. 
During that discussion, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 
representative expressed interest in having counties in Texas included 
as part of the area for this proposed nonessential experimental 
population, in order to avoid possible closures of waterfowl hunting if 
whooping cranes from the proposed experimental population were to 
wander into the area. However, this regulation does not include any 
Texas counties because the Service believes that the winter range 
expansion of the endangered AWBP along the Texas Gulf Coast is an 
essential aspect of achieving recovery of the species and that it would 
be a rare event for a Louisiana nonmigratory whooping crane to disperse 
into east Texas. The Service and Louisiana DWF coordinated with the 
Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic Flyway Councils and adjacent State 
wildlife agencies by sending them the

[[Page 6071]]

proposed rule during the public comment period and by contacting the 
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to obtain additional input on the 
potential reintroduction of a nonmigratory whooping crane population in 
southwestern Louisiana. The Louisiana DWF also made presentations and 
facilitated discussions with numerous organizations and potentially 
affected interest groups and government representatives in southwestern 
    In addition, Louisiana DWF and the Service coordinated, both 
formally and informally, with constituents related to the nonmigratory 
NEP. All were asked to provide comments on this proposed rule.
    An extensive sharing of information about the effort to reintroduce 
a nonmigratory flock to Louisiana and the species itself, via 
educational efforts targeted toward the public throughout the NEP area, 
will enhance public awareness of this species and its reintroduction. 
We will encourage the public to cooperate with the Service and 
Louisiana DWF in attempts to maintain and protect whooping cranes in 
the release area.

Reintroduction Protocol

    We will conduct an initial gentle-release of juvenile whooping 
cranes in the WLWCA in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. These birds will be 
captive or parent-reared at one of the captive-rearing facilities, then 
transferred to facilities at the Louisiana release site and conditioned 
for wild release to increase post-release survival (Zwank and Wilson 
1987, p. 166; Ellis et al. 1992b, p. 147; Nesbitt et al. 2001, p. 62) 
and adaptability to wild foods. Before release, the cranes will be 
banded for identification purposes. At the time of release, they will 
be tagged with radio and/or GPS solar-powered satellite transmitters at 
release, so that they can be monitored to discern movements, habitat 
use, other behavior, and survival rate. Numbers of birds available for 
release will depend on production at captive-propagation facilities and 
the future need for additional releases into the EMP. The Species 
Survival Center in New Orleans has received Federal funding to 
construct additional whooping crane breeding pens so that additional 
whooping crane eggs produced for release can come from Louisiana.
    Captive-reared cranes are conditioned for wild release by being 
reared in isolation from humans, by use of conspecific role models 
(puppets), and by exercising with animal care personnel in crane 
costumes to avoid imprinting on humans (Horwich 1989, pp. 380-384; 
Ellis et al. 1992a, pp. 137-138; Urbanek and Bookhout 1992, pp. 122-
123). This technique has been used to establish a population of 
nonmigratory whooping cranes in Florida (Nesbitt et al. 2001, pp. 62-
63). This technique has also been successful in supplementing the 
population of endangered nonmigratory Mississippi sandhill cranes in 
Mississippi (Zwank and Wilson 1987, p. 165; Ellis et al. 1992b, p. 
147). Facilities for captive maintenance of the birds will be modeled 
after facilities at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the 
International Crane Foundation and will conform to standards set forth 
in the Animal Welfare Act regulations (9 CFR) and Louisiana Wildlife 
Code. To further ensure the well-being of birds in captivity and their 
suitability for release to the wild, facilities will incorporate 
features of their natural environment (e.g., feeding, loafing, and 
roosting habitat) to the extent possible. The gentle release-
conditioning pens will be similar to those used successfully to release 
whooping cranes in the Florida and EMP populations, as well as release 
of Mississippi sandhill cranes. Pens help young, naive birds acclimate 
to their surroundings, provide a degree of protection against 
predation, and facilitate supplementing food resources if needed. Pre-
release conditioning will occur at facilities near the release site.
    Since migration is a learned rather than an innate behavior, 
captive-reared whooping cranes released in Louisiana will likely adhere 
to their release area rather than disperse into new regions. There have 
been 289 whooping cranes released and 11 fledged in Florida between 
1993 and 2010, with a current population of 21. Sixteen Florida 
nonmigratory whooping cranes have been documented in five States other 
than Florida; seven returned to the reintroduction area within 7 
months, and nine were not seen again (Folk et al. 2008, pp. 7-12). 
These dispersals generally occurred in spring and summer during times 
of severe drought.

Reintroduced Population

    In 2001, we designated the State of Louisiana as part of the 
Eastern Migratory Population NEP geographic area where whooping cranes 
within the NEP boundary are nonessential experimental. With this 
regulation, we clarify that the reintroduced nonmigratory flock of 
whooping cranes in southwestern Louisiana are also considered a NEP 
according to the provisions of section 10(j) of the ESA. This 
designation is justified, because no adverse effects to extant wild or 
captive whooping crane populations will result from release of progeny 
from the captive flock. We also have a reasonable expectation that the 
reintroduction effort into Louisiana will result in the successful 
establishment of a self-sustaining, resident, nonmigratory flock, which 
will contribute to the recovery of the species. The special rule is 
expected to ensure that this reintroduction is compatible with current 
or planned human activities in the release area.
    We have concluded that this experimental population of nonmigratory 
birds is not essential to the continued existence of the whooping crane 
for the following reasons:
    (a) The AWBP and the captive populations currently are the primary 
species populations. With approximately 150 birds in captivity at 12 
discrete sites (5 main facilities and 7 other locations), and 
approximately 250 birds in the AWBP, the experimental population is not 
essential to the continued existence of the species. The species has 
been protected against the threat of extinction from a single 
catastrophic event by gradual recovery of the AWBP and by an increase 
in the numbers and management of the cranes at the captive sites.
    (b) The primary repository of genetic diversity for the species is 
the approximately 400 wild and captive whooping cranes mentioned in (a) 
above. The birds selected for reintroduction purposes will be as 
genetically redundant as possible with the captive population; hence, 
any loss of reintroduced animals in this experiment will not 
significantly impact the goal of preserving maximum genetic diversity 
in the species.
    (c) Any birds lost during the reintroduction attempt can be 
replaced through captive breeding. This illustrates the potential of 
the captive flock to replace individual birds that are released in 
reintroduction efforts. Levels of production are expected to be 
sufficient to support both this reintroduction and continued releases 
into the EMP. Production from the extant captive flock, with 
approximately 30 juveniles available annually, is already large enough 
to support wild releases.
    The hazards and uncertainties of the reintroduction experiment are 
substantial, but a decision not to attempt to utilize the existing 
captive-breeding potential to establish an additional, wild, self-
sustaining population would be equally hazardous to survival of the 
species in the wild. The AWBP could be lost as the result of a 
catastrophic event or a contaminant

[[Page 6072]]

spill on the wintering grounds; such a loss would necessitate 
management efforts to establish an additional wild population. The 
recovery plan identifies the need for three self-sustaining wild 
populations--consisting of 40 nesting pairs in the AWBP and 2 
additional, separate and self-sustaining populations consisting of 25 
nesting pairs each--to be in existence before the whooping crane can be 
considered for reclassification to threatened status.
    Due to the survival and reproductive issues faced by the Florida 
Nonmigratory Population, it is extremely unlikely that reproduction in 
wild-hatched Florida whooping cranes will ever achieve production rates 
adequate for success. If reproductive issues can be overcome, the EMP 
has the potential to become the second self-sustaining wild population 
needed to move toward recovery. Establishing a Louisiana nonmigratory 
flock as the third population has become a recovery priority. Whooping 
cranes historically occurred in Louisiana in both a resident 
nonmigratory flock and a migratory flock that wintered in Louisiana. 
The release area, White Lake, is the location where whooping cranes 
were historically documented raising young in Louisiana (Gomez 1992, p. 
20). If this reintroduction effort is successful, conservation of the 
species will have been furthered considerably by establishing another 
self-sustaining population in currently unoccupied habitat. Because 
establishment of other populations has not yet been entirely 
successful, establishing a Louisiana nonmigratory flock will also 
demonstrate that captive-reared cranes can be used to establish a 
nonmigratory wild population.

Location of Reintroduced Population

Release Area
    The release site, WLWCA, encompasses part of the area historically 
occupied by a nonmigratory breeding population of whooping cranes 
(Allen 1952, p. 30; Gomez 1992, p. 19). The WLWCA (formerly known as 
the Standolind Tract), located in Vermilion Parish, was owned and 
managed by BP America Production White Lake (BPWL) until 2002, when 
BPWL donated the property to the State of Louisiana. At that time a 
cooperative Endeavor Agreement between the State of Louisiana and White 
Lake Preservation Inc., was executed for management of the property. In 
2005, according to the terms of that agreement, the Louisiana DWF 
received total control for management of this area. BP retained the 
mineral rights to WLWCA.
    The WLWCA is located within the Mermentau Basin, along the north 
shore of White Lake, in southwestern Louisiana. Natural drainage within 
the basin has been interrupted by manmade features. The major source of 
hydrological change in this basin has been the conversion of two 
estuarine lakes (Grand and White Lakes) into freshwater reservoirs for 
agricultural (rice) irrigation in the surrounding areas. There are 
several large areas of public ownership in the general vicinity. The 
WLWCA is located approximately 11 km (7 mi) north of the State-owned 
Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge and Game Preserve (30,773 hectares (76,042 
acres)) and approximately 32 km (20 mi) east of Cameron Prairie NWR 
(3,893 ha (9,621 ac)). The area north of WLWCA is primarily used for 
agriculture, although it was historically the panicum (paille fine) 
freshwater marshes that Allen (1952, p. 30) reported as being used by 
whooping cranes. Nonagricultural areas surrounding WLWCA consist of 
brackish to intermediate marshes, privately owned and primarily used 
for waterfowl hunting.
    WLWCA comprises approximately 28,722 contiguous ha (70,970 ac) and 
is divided into several management units. Approximately 7,690 ha 
(19,000 ac) are in agricultural use, primarily in the northeastern 
portion (Management Units A and F), and the rest of the area is 
wetlands. The wetland portions are nearly bisected by Florence Canal 
(Gomez 1992, p. 21). Approximately 12,100 ha (29,900 ac) east of 
Florence Canal (Management Unit B) consist of maidencane (Panicum 
hemitomon) marsh, and water levels are passively managed. The wetland 
areas west of Florence Canal (Management Units E and C) were formerly a 
sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) marsh (until a die-off in the late 1950s) 
and now consist of bulltongue (Sagittaria sp.) (Gomez 1992, p. 21). 
Water levels are actively managed using pumps on approximately 1,944 ha 
(4,805 ac) (Unit C).
    The release site (Unit C--inadvertently labeled as ``Unit E'' in 
the proposed rule) consists of approximately 1,944 ha (4,805 ac) of 
wetlands on which the Louisiana DWF actively manages water level using 
pumps and weirs. Water level management consists of providing habitat 
for wintering waterfowl and other migratory bird species by gradual 
flooding in the fall, with the deepest water (0.61 to 0.76 m (2 to 2.5 
ft)) generally occurring at the western end. The area is kept flooded 
for approximately 6 weeks and then drawn down in the spring. Louisiana 
DWF will manage this unit to benefit both waterfowl and whooping 
cranes. Louisiana DWF has also recently received a grant for a habitat 
restoration project for a 900-ac area adjacent to Unit C; the area will 
be managed specifically for whooping cranes. Boat traffic occurs in the 
Florence Canal (the eastern border of this unit). Limited controlled 
waterfowl hunting occurs on the WLWCA. Occasional controlled 
nonconsumptive activities (e.g., boating) periodically occur within 
Unit C in the spring and summer. The Louisiana DWF has facilities 
adjacent to WLWCA where monitoring personnel would be housed.
    Section 10(j) of the ESA requires that an experimental population 
be geographically separate from other populations of the same species. 
The NEP area already identified in the eastern United States for the 
EMP (66 FR 33903) includes Louisiana. The NEP area for the nonmigratory 
whooping cranes released in this reintroduction project is the State of 
Louisiana. The expectation is that most whooping cranes will be 
concentrated within wetlands at and nearby the proposed release site in 
Vermilion Parish. Long-term dispersal within the Louisiana nonmigratory 
NEP area may include areas in Acadia, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson 
Davis, and Lafayette Parishes. The fresh water marshes and wetlands of 
southwestern Louisiana are expected to receive occasional use by the 
cranes and may be used in the event of future population expansion. 
However, any whooping crane found within Louisiana will be considered 
part of the nonessential experimental population. Although experience 
has shown that most birds show an affinity to the release area after 
gentle release, it is impossible to predict where individual whooping 
cranes may disperse following release within the project area. A vast 
majority of the whooping cranes released within Florida stayed within 
the NEP. Since 1993, of the 300 individuals that have been released or 
fledged in the wild in the Florida nonmigratory population, 16 have 
been documented outside of Florida; 7 returned to the reintroduction 
area within 7 months, and 9 were not seen again. One pair is known to 
have traveled to Illinois and Michigan during the severe drought of 
2000 and a second pair dispersed to Virginia, but surviving members of 
the pairs returned to the core reintroduction area in Florida. These 
dispersals generally occurred during the spring and summer, during 
times of severe drought. Designation of the Louisiana nonmigratory NEP 

[[Page 6073]]

for the possible occurrence of cranes in a larger area of Louisiana.
    Released whooping cranes might wander into the eastern counties of 
Texas adjacent to the expected dispersal area and outside the Louisiana 
NEP area. We believe the frequency of such movements is likely to be 
very low. Any whooping cranes that leave the Louisiana NEP area but 
remain in the eastern United States NEP will still be considered as 
experimental nonessential. Any whooping crane that leaves the Louisiana 
and eastern United States NEP areas will be considered endangered. In 
the rare event of a whooping crane moving outside the Louisiana and EMP 
NEP areas, including those that move into eastern Texas, attempts will 
be made to capture and return them to the appropriate area if removal 
is requested by the State which they enter or if a reasonable 
possibility exists for contact with the AWBP.
    Birds from the AWBP flock have never been observed in Louisiana, 
and have rarely been observed in any of the States within the eastern 
United States NEP area, except as a result of an extreme weather event. 
They are not expected to be found in the Louisiana NEP. Prior to 
adoption of this rule, any whooping cranes from the AWBP flock that 
crossed into Louisiana would have been considered part of the EMP NEP 
and would have been subject to a reduced level of protection. Since no 
AWBP birds have been shown to move into Louisiana, we have not found 
this to have an adverse impact on the natural wild flock. Any whooping 
cranes that occur within the LA NEP area will be considered part of the 
NEP, and will be subject to the protective measures in place for the 
NEP. We have not found this situation to have an adverse impact to the 
    Whooping cranes released in southwestern Louisiana are not expected 
to interact with the AWBP flock along the Texas coast, as Aransas NWR 
is approximately 482 km (285 miles) southwest of the release area. 
However, if the Recovery Team considers having EMP whooping cranes 
winter in Louisiana, some interaction between EMP migratory and 
Louisiana nonmigratory cranes would be expected to occur. The 
possibility that individual birds from either flock would acquire 
either migratory or nonmigratory behavior through association, 
especially if pairs form between members of the different populations, 
is not likely. Research with sandhill cranes in Florida has shown that 
migratory and nonmigratory populations mix during winter and yet 
maintain their own migratory and nonmigratory behaviors. The same holds 
true for whooping cranes. Individuals of the Florida nonmigratory 
population and the EMP have associated during the winter; however, the 
two flocks have remained discrete and each represents a separate 
population as specified in the Recovery Plan (Canadian Wildlife Service 
and USFWS 2007, p. xii). As such, while the levels of protection are 
the same, the two populations may be managed differently.
a. Monitoring
    Whooping cranes will be intensively monitored by Louisiana DWF and 
other personnel prior to and after release. The birds will be observed 
daily while they are in the gentle-release/conditioning pen.
    To ensure that we know the localities of the released birds, each 
crane will be equipped with a legband-mounted radio transmitter and/or 
a solar-powered GPS satellite transmitter. Subsequent to being gentle 
released, the birds will be monitored regularly to assess movements and 
dispersal from the area of the release pen. Whooping cranes will be 
checked regularly for mortality or indications of disease 
(listlessness, social exclusion, flightlessness, or obvious weakness). 
Social behavior (e.g., pair formation, dominance, cohort loyalty) and 
habitat use will also be evaluated.
    A voucher blood serum sample will be taken for each crane prior to 
its arrival in Louisiana. A second sample will be taken just prior to 
release. Any time a bird is handled after release into the wild (e.g., 
when recaptured to replace transmitters), samples may be taken to 
monitor disease exposure, contaminant exposure, and physiological 
condition. One year after release, if possible, all surviving whooping 
cranes may be captured and an evaluation made of their exposure to 
disease/parasites/contaminants through blood, fecal, and other sampling 
regimens. If preliminary results are favorable, the releases will be 
continued annually, with the goal of releasing up to 30 birds per year 
for about 10 years and then evaluating the success of the recovery 
b. Disease/Parasite Considerations
    A possible disease concern has been the probable presence of 
Infectious Bursal Disease (IBD) in the Central Flyway. Progress has 
been made on determining whether IBD is likely to affect whooping 
cranes. An IBD-like virus was isolated from an AWBP juvenile whooping 
crane that died at Aransas in February 2009. The U.S. Geological 
Survey's National Wildlife Health Center is studying this virus to 
classify it more precisely. Blood samples from sandhill cranes 
collected on the Platte River, Nebraska, in March 2009 found that 12 of 
19 had antibodies to IBD. It appears that sandhill cranes and whooping 
cranes have been exposed to IBD in the Central Flyway, and that 
whooping cranes are likely not seriously affected by IBD. Thus, it is 
unlikely that the reintroduction of whooping cranes into Louisiana 
poses any significant risk to the AWBP whooping cranes in regard to 
transfer of IBD.
    Both sandhill and whooping cranes are also known to be vulnerable, 
in part or all of their natural range, to avian herpes (inclusion body 
disease), avian cholera, acute and chronic mycotoxicosis, eastern 
equine encephalitis (EEE), and avian tuberculosis. Additionally, 
Eimeria spp., Haemoproteus spp., Leucocytozoon spp., avian pox, and 
Hexamita spp. have been identified as debilitating or lethal factors in 
wild or pre-release captive populations.
    A group of crane veterinarians and disease specialists have 
developed protocols for pre-release and pre-transfer health screening 
for birds selected for release to prevent introduction of diseases and 
parasites. Exposure to disease and parasites will be evaluated through 
blood, serum, and fecal analysis of any individual crane handled post-
release or at the regular monitoring interval. Remedial action will be 
taken to return to good health any sick individuals taken into 
captivity. Sick birds will be held in special facilities and their 
health and treatment monitored by veterinarians. Special attention will 
be given to EEE, because an outbreak at the Patuxent Wildlife Research 
Center in 1984 killed 7 of 39 whooping cranes present there. After the 
outbreak, the equine EEE vaccine has been used on captive cranes. In 
1989, EEE was documented in sentinel bobwhite quail and sandhill cranes 
at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. No whooping cranes became 
ill, and it appears the vaccine may provide protection. EEE is present 
in Louisiana, so the released birds may be vaccinated. Other 
encephalitis diseases have not been documented as occurring or causing 
morbidity or mortality in cranes.
    When appropriate, other avian species may be used to assess the 
prevalence of certain disease factors. This could mean using sentinel 
turkeys for ascertaining exposure probability to encephalitis or

[[Page 6074]]

evaluating a species with similar food habits for susceptibility to 
chronic mycotoxicosis.
c. Genetic Considerations
    The ultimate genetic goal of the reintroduction program is to 
establish wild reintroduced populations that possess the maximum level 
of genetic diversity available from the captive population. The Service 
will continue to use genetic information and advances in conservation 
biology to effectively manage flock genetics. The Service and Louisiana 
DWF will adopt and implement a genetics management plan for the LA NEP. 
Ensuring balanced sex ratios and genetics will assist the Louisiana 
Nonmigratory Population in getting an early start on success. To the 
extent practicable, the plan will also take into account the release 
histories of the different lineages and their success as wild whooping 
d. Mortality
    Although efforts will be made to minimize mortality, some will 
inevitably occur as captive-reared birds adapt to the wild. Potential 
predators of adult and young whooping cranes include bobcats, coyotes, 
bald eagles, and alligators. Red fox, owls, and raccoons are also 
potential predators of young cranes. Collisions with power lines and 
fences are known hazards to wild whooping cranes. If whooping cranes 
begin regular use of areas traversed by power lines or fences, the 
Service and Louisiana DWF will consider placing markers on the 
obstacles to reduce the probability of collisions.
    Recently released whooping cranes will need protection from natural 
sources of mortality (predators, disease, and inadequate foods) and 
from human-caused sources of mortality. Natural mortality will be 
reduced through pre-release conditioning, gentle release, supplemental 
feeding for a post-release period, vaccination, and predator control. 
Predator control conditioning will include teaching young cranes the 
habit of roosting in standing water. Predation by bobcats has been a 
significant source of mortality in the Eastern Migratory and Florida 
nonmigratory flocks, and teaching appropriate roosting behavior to 
young birds will help to reduce losses to coyotes and bobcats. We will 
minimize human-caused mortality through a number of measures such as: 
(a) Placing whooping cranes in an area with low human population 
density and relatively low development; (b) working with and educating 
landowners, land managers, developers, and recreationalists to develop 
means for conducting their existing and planned activities in a manner 
that is compatible with whooping crane recovery; and (c) conferring 
with developers on proposed actions and providing recommendations that 
will reduce any likely adverse impacts to the cranes. As mentioned 
above in ``Monitoring,'' the whooping cranes will be closely monitored 
as the reintroduction effort progresses. We will work closely with 
Louisiana DWF and local landowners in monitoring and evaluating the 
reintroduction effort and in adaptively managing any human-caused 
mortality issues that arise.
e. Special Handling
    Service employees, Louisiana DWF employees, and their agents are 
authorized to relocate whooping cranes to avoid conflict with human 
activities; relocate whooping cranes that have moved outside the 
appropriate release area or the NEP area when removal is necessary or 
requested; relocate whooping cranes within the NEP area to improve 
survival and recovery prospects; and aid cranes that are sick, injured, 
or otherwise in need of special care. If a whooping crane is determined 
to be unfit to remain in the wild, it will be returned to captivity. 
Service employees, Louisiana DWF, and their agents are authorized to 
salvage dead whooping cranes.
f. Potential Conflicts
    In the central and western United States, conflicts have resulted 
from the hunting of migratory birds in areas utilized by whooping 
cranes, particularly the hunting of sandhill cranes and snow geese 
(Chen cerulescens), because novice hunters may have difficulty 
distinguishing whooping cranes from those species. During the past 10 
years, three crane mortalities have been documented incidental to 
hunting activities. In Louisiana, snow geese are hunted; however, 
sandhill cranes are not. Accidental shooting of a whooping crane in 
this experimental population occurring in the course of otherwise 
lawful hunting activity is exempt from take restrictions under the ESA 
in this special regulation. Applicable Federal penalties under the 
Migratory Bird Treaty Act and/or State penalties, however, may still 
apply. There will be no Federally mandated hunting area or season 
closures or season modifications for the purpose of protecting whooping 
cranes in the nonmigratory flock. We will minimize mortality due to 
accidental shootings by providing educational opportunities and 
information to hunters to assist them in distinguishing whooping cranes 
from other legal game species.
    The bulk of traditional hunting in the WLWCA release area has been 
for waterfowl and migratory bird species, turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), 
deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and small game. Conflict with 
traditional hunting in the release area is not anticipated. Access to 
some limited areas at release sites and at times when whooping cranes 
might be particularly vulnerable to human disturbance (i.e., at 
occupied nesting areas) may be temporarily restricted. Any temporary 
restricted access to areas for these purposes will be of the minimum 
size and duration necessary for protection of the NEP cranes, and will 
be closely coordinated with the Service and at the discretion of 
Louisiana DWF. Any such access restrictions will not require Federal 
closure of hunting areas or seasons.
    The Louisiana DWF will maintain its management authorities 
regarding the whooping crane. It is not directed by this rule to take 
any specific actions to provide any special protective measures, nor is 
it prevented from imposing restrictions under State law, such as 
protective designations, and area closures. Louisiana DWF has indicated 
that it would not propose hunting restrictions or closures related to 
game species because of the whooping crane reintroduction.
    Overall, the presence of whooping cranes is not expected to result 
in constraints on hunting of wildlife or to affect economic gain 
landowners might receive from hunting leases. The potential exists for 
future hunting seasons to be established for other migratory birds that 
are not currently hunted in Louisiana. This action will not prevent the 
establishment of future hunting seasons approved for other migratory 
bird species by the Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils.
    The principal activities on private property adjacent to the 
release area are agriculture, aquaculture, oil and gas exploration and 
extraction, water level management as part of coastal restoration 
projects, and recreation. Use of these private properties by whooping 
cranes will not preclude such uses.
    Offshore oil exploration and extraction activities, as well as the 
Deepwater Horizon/MC252 Oil Spill and cleanup, have not affected the 
release area. The release area is in a fresh to brackish marsh system. 
The WLWCA is also located over 200 miles from the Deepwater Horizon oil 
spill release site and 17 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline. 
Additionally, there are multiple physical barriers to stop crude oil 
from entering WLWCA,

[[Page 6075]]

such as the Gulf of Mexico beach rim, levees, water control structures, 
locks, and spill control equipment. The nearest location that was 
affected by the spill was Marsh Island, which is 45 miles (72 km) away. 
The special regulation accompanying this rule only authorizes take of 
the whooping crane in the NEP area when the take is accidental and 
incidental to an otherwise lawful activity. Inland oil and gas 
exploration and extraction activities associated with mineral rights 
will continue to be managed by existing Federal and State environmental 
rules and regulations. As described earlier, migration is a learned 
behavior in whooping cranes, and we do not anticipate that released 
birds will disperse to areas close to the coastline. We will be 
monitoring the locations of the birds via transmitter to ensure the 
health and safety of each individual.
    An additional issue identified as a possible conflict is the 
potential for crop depredation. There is evidence that some sandhill 
cranes have caused losses of emerging corn in Wisconsin (Blackwell et 
al., 2001, p. 67) and Florida. It is possible that whooping cranes 
could engage in this type of behavior on planted crops in Louisiana as 
well. However, whooping cranes are socially less gregarious than 
sandhill cranes, and tend to restrict the bulk of their foraging 
activities to wetland areas. Therefore, they are believed to be less 
likely to cause significant crop depredations.
    Whooping cranes are known to use ranchlands and pasture, but with 
no known impacts to cattle operation practices. Among the primary 
sandhill and whooping crane habitats in Florida are ranchlands and 
pastures associated with cattle operations (Nesbitt and Williams, 1990, 
p. 95). AWBP whooping cranes are also known to utilize the cattle 
ranchlands adjacent to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge as wintering 
habitat (Canadian Wildlife Service and USFWS 2007, p. 14). We do not 
anticipate that the presence of whooping cranes on ranchlands or 
pastures in Louisiana would cause any impacts to cattle operations.
    Like other wading bird species, whooping cranes will forage along 
lake and pond edges, and may forage along the edges of ponds used for 
crawfish production, but this is not likely to cause significant stock 
depredations on crawfish. However, water levels of crawfish ponds are 
lowered at certain times for management purposes. Lowering of water 
depths, called drawdowns, do attract large numbers of wading birds as 
aquatic organisms become concentrated and vulnerable to depredation 
during the lower water depths. If such depredations occur due to 
whooping cranes, they can be minimized through use of bird-scaring 
devices and other techniques. Therefore, we do not expect that whooping 
cranes will pose a significant threat of stock depredation to crawfish. 
Another concern is that whooping cranes may choose to nest in an area 
with an ongoing crawfish operation. If whooping cranes nest in such a 
situation, it would indicate that those birds have acclimated to those 
activities and it is anticipated that the activities would not likely 
impact a nesting attempt.
    If whooping cranes use national wildlife refuges in Louisiana, the 
management programs on the refuges will continue as identified in the 
individual refuges' approved comprehensive conservation plans, step-
down management plans, and annual work plans, and via customary and 
traditional accouterments. Activities of existing mineral rights 
owners, which include exploration, mining, marketing, and production, 
will continue to be managed by the Service in accordance with existing 
refuge special-use permit conditions currently used for the protection 
of migratory birds. All other mineral operations will further be 
managed in accordance with approved Comprehensive Conservation Plans.
    Under the existing rules currently in place for the protection of 
all fish and wildlife, including the numerous wading birds and other 
migratory birds in the Louisiana coastal zone, mineral exploration and 
extraction activities on private and/or State-owned lands can continue 
without additional impacts from the presence of reintroduced birds. 
Whooping cranes, like other wading birds, will flush due to close 
proximity of helicopters or airboats. Current practices by private, 
State, and Federal land managers will minimize unnecessary harassment 
of all wildlife during such activities.
    This reintroduction effort will gentle-release captive-born, 
isolation-reared whooping crane chicks at WLWCA in Vermilion Parish in 
an attempt to establish a resident nonmigratory population of whooping 
cranes in Louisiana. It will be difficult to predict which specific 
sites will be utilized by the birds, and some cranes may use habitats 
with which they have no previous experience. Whooping cranes that 
appear in undesirable locations will be considered for relocation by 
capture and/or hazing of the birds. Possible conflicts with hunting, 
recreation, agriculture, aquaculture, oil and gas exploration/
extraction, and water management interests within the release area will 
be minimized through an extensive public education program.

Summary of Comments and Recommendations

    In the August 19, 2010, proposed rule (75 FR 51223), we requested 
comments or recommendations concerning any aspect of the proposal and 
the accompanying draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that might 
contribute to development of the final decision on the proposed rule. A 
60-day comment period was provided. We sent copies of the rule and 
other informational materials about the project to State and Federal 
agencies, Congressional representatives, Tribes, Flyway Councils, 
conservation groups, hunting groups, and numerous private citizens who 
may be affected or had expressed an interest in receiving further 
information on the project. In accordance with our policy on peer 
review, published on July 1, 1994 (59 FR 34270), we also provided 
copies of this proposed rule to three or more appropriate independent 
    Changes resulting from public comments: As the result of comments 
received, we have changed several sections of the preamble in this 
final rule to update information, add new information, and clarify 
important points. However, we are not making any changes to the text 
for 50 CFR 17.84(h) from what we had published in our proposed rule of 
August 19, 2010 (75 FR 51223).
    We held two public hearings to receive comments on the proposed 
rule. One hearing was held at the Gueydan Community Center, Gueydan, 
Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, the largest community (population 1,591) 
nearest to the proposed release site. The second hearing was held at 
the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Headquarters in 
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We received 19 comments on the proposed rule at 
the public hearings and 19 written comments on the proposed rule and/or 
the draft EA. We also received 23,210 electronic mail form letters from 
the membership of a conservation organization; 9 of those responses 
included additional personal comments. Overall, comments came from 
individuals, conservation organizations, a hunting/conservation 
organization, a private corporation, and a State wildlife agency. Peer 
review included a State agency avian biologist and two independent 
avian experts. No comments expressed direct opposition to the proposal. 
Comments included support for the proposal to designate a nonessential 
experimental population;

[[Page 6076]]

support with concerns; support with concerns and recommendations; and 
indirect opposition with recommendations for delay due to perceived 
Deepwater Horizon/MC252 oil spill effects. Analysis of the comments 
revealed 12 issues that are identified and discussed below. These 12 
issues also covered the personal comments found in 9 of the 23,210 form 
    Issue 1: Two commenters indirectly opposed releases and recommended 
delay, and many others expressed concern, regarding the negative 
impacts that the Deepwater Horizon/MC252 oil spill may have had on 
coastal Louisiana and the WLWCA, and potential impacts to whooping 
cranes released into southwestern Louisiana.
    Our Response: The Deepwater Horizon/MC252 Oil Spill has not had a 
direct effect on the release site, WLWCA, or the surrounding habitats 
in southwestern Louisiana. The release area is inland, and is buffered 
from the coast by more than 15 miles (24 km) of the Chenier plain, as 
well as ridges and coastal marshes. Two small segments of shoreline 
approximately 30 to 45 miles (48 to 72 km) to the southeast experienced 
light oiling (on Marsh Island and on adjacent western shore) during the 
oil spill. As of November 5, the nearest coastal areas with residual 
oiling are located on the eastern edge of Atchafalaya Bay in St. Mary 
and Terrebonne Parishes, approximately 78 miles (125 km) or farther 
away from the WLWCA. Therefore, the Service has determined that the 
Deepwater Horizon/MC252 Oil Spill will likely have no effects on the 
whooping cranes reintroduced into southwestern Louisiana. For 
monitoring purposes, released birds will be fitted with tracking 
devices as to determine their locations. If we determine that birds 
enter sites or situations that would be harmful to them, we will work 
to relocate the bird out of harm's way. We also will be monitoring the 
health of birds through a variety of methods (blood samples, 
observation, retrieval and necropsy of any dead birds, etc.) so that we 
will be able to detect any unexpected effects on the health of the 
birds. We will be monitoring habitat suitability and prey availability 
as well.
    Issue 2: The Service should pursue the reintroduction of a 
migratory population of whooping cranes that winters at Marsh Island 
and should also consider using Marsh Island and other refuges in 
southwestern Louisiana as a release site for the nonmigratory 
    Our Response: The current proposal for reintroduction in 
southwestern Louisiana reflects the most recent recommendation of the 
Recovery Team (June 17, 2010, letter from the Service to Louisiana 
DWF). This recommendation was reached after careful consideration of 
all factors likely to influence the reestablishment of another self-
sustaining flock of whooping cranes needed to contribute toward 
recovery of the species. Some of these factors are discussed within the 
``Background'' section in this rule. Factors supporting the WLWCA 
include the presence of suitable breeding habitat and food resources, 
over 405,000 hectares (1 million acres) of wetlands in the area, many 
large tracts of publicly managed lands in the area, geographic 
separation from the existing natural wild flock, support from the 
public, and the State of Louisiana's willingness to take on the 
leadership role and desire to restore a piece of the natural heritage 
of Louisiana.
    Some aspects of a reintroduction of a migratory population that 
would winter at Marsh Island hold promise, and the area will remain 
under consideration for a future reintroduction when conditions are 
more favorable for the effort. These aspects are outlined in the EA 
along with the issues that will need to be addressed before such a 
reintroduction can be pursued. Marsh Island has many of the 
characteristics that would make for a good release area: A large area 
of pristine estuarine habitat, little to no pressure from humans, and 
no bobcats or coyotes. However, Marsh Island lacks the most important 
habitat characteristic needed for a nonmigratory population of whooping 
cranes, namely large areas of freshwater marshes that will support 
nesting whooping cranes. To date, whooping cranes are known only to 
nest in freshwater marshes. In the Objectives of the Reintroduction 
section of the rule, we specifically indicate that to facilitate a 
successful reintroduction, other release sites may be considered in 
southwestern Louisiana.
    Issue 3: One commenter expressed concern regarding the genetics of 
the whooping cranes to be released into Louisiana. Specifically, 
genetic lineages that are more successful in captivity might well have 
traits that will make them less successful in the wild.
    Our Response: As stated in the 2007 Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, 
the Service will continue to use genetic information and advances in 
conservation biology to effectively manage flock genetics in accordance 
with the whooping crane recovery plan. As the commenter has 
recommended, the Service and Louisiana DWF will adopt and implement a 
genetics management plan for the LA NEP. The ultimate genetic goal of 
this project is to establish a wild reintroduced population that 
possesses the maximum level of genetic diversity available from the 
captive population. Ensuring balanced sex ratios and genetics will 
assist the population in getting an early start on success for the 
Louisiana Nonmigratory Population. The plan will also take into account 
the release histories of the different lineages and their success as 
wild whooping cranes.
    Issue 4: Several commenters expressed concern about hunting and 
recommended hunter education.
    Our Response: We agree that hunter education is an important 
component of this process. Because of the perception of government 
restrictions associated with endangered species, the relaxation of take 
prohibitions as part of the 10(j) designation of an experimental 
nonessential population has been very important in gaining public 
support for whooping crane reintroductions. A key factor of the rule 
gaining support from the hunting community is that accidental shooting 
of a whooping crane in this experimental population occurring in the 
course of a lawful hunting activity is exempt from take restrictions 
under the ESA in this special regulation. However, applicable Federal 
penalties under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and/or State penalties 
may still apply. Further, the intentional take of a whooping crane is 
still subject to the full applicable penalties of the ESA.
    The Service is working with Louisiana DWF to develop hunter 
educational materials designed to minimize the likelihood of accidental 
shooting of whooping cranes, develop outreach materials to assist in 
distinguishing whooping cranes from legal game species, and develop 
appropriate messages for target audiences. The Service will also assist 
Louisiana DWF in working with land managers and land owners of the 
properties used by whooping cranes and in distributing information to 
land managers, land owners, partners, and stakeholders to keep them 
informed of whooping crane presence and movements.
    Issue 5: Commenters were also concerned about forage availability. 
Specifically, they were concerned whether the current water management 
regimes at the reintroduction site were suitable to ensure the 
availability of blue crab and other estuarine food prey items.
    Our Response: The availability of blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) 
and other estuarine prey items as forage at the WLWCA was not a factor 
when we

[[Page 6077]]

decided upon the release location. The historic nonmigratory whooping 
crane population was dependent upon the freshwater marshes and wet 
prairie. The project is targeting freshwater, as whooping cranes are 
known only to nest in fresh water wetlands. The Florida NonMigratory 
Population reintroduction targeted the freshwater wetlands and prairies 
of central Florida. In that flock, productivity was correlated with 
rainfall and wetland water levels. The Eastern Migratory Population 
reintroduction targeted estuarine wetlands as wintering habitat in an 
effort to mimic ecology of the wild AWBP (wintering in estuarine 
habitat at the Aransas NWR and feeding predominantly on blue crabs). 
However, after a decade of releasing birds into this population, 
virtually all of the whooping cranes depend upon freshwater wetlands, 
including wintering habitat. There has been very little use of 
Florida's coastal salt marsh as wintering habitat. Whooping cranes in 
the Eastern Migratory Population and Florida NonMigratory Population 
have had no issues with finding adequate forage in freshwater wetlands 
systems. Furthermore, even though White Lake has changed from the 1940s 
brackish/fresh system to a predominantly fresh system, the area 
maintains a steady population of blue crab (Callinectes sapidus), white 
shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), largemouth bass (Micropterus 
salmoides), and other aquatic species that are projected to remain 
steady to the year 2050 (Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and 
Restoration Task Force and the Wetlands Conservation Restoration 
Authority 1999, pp. 11-13). Other water-dependent birds with diet 
preferences similar to those of whooping cranes are abundant in the 
release area. The main point is that whooping cranes are generalists, 
are quite adaptive, and will utilize the food sources that are 
    Issue 6: Several commenters expressed concern with changes in the 
hydrologic management of the WLWCA and the Mermentau Basin as a fresh-
water impoundment since the last resident whooping crane population was 
present, and questioned if the habitat would support/sustain a 
population of nonmigratory whooping cranes. It was also recommended 
that the Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers update the 
Mermentau Basin management plan to restore the estuarine environment of 
White Lake.
    Our Response: As discussed previously, the Louisiana DWF has 
indicated that it will develop a water management regime for the WLWCA 
that will benefit both waterfowl and whooping cranes. Water management 
in the Mermentau Basin has primarily been controlled since the early 
1950s through two control structures operated by the U.S. Army Corps of 
Engineers. There has been a shift in habitat types from the 
predominately brackish-to-fresh marshes of the 1940s to the 
predominantly fresh marsh found today (Louisiana Coastal Wetlands 
Conservation and Restoration Task Force and the Wetlands Conservation 
restoration Authority 1999, pp. 11-13). However, as previously 
discussed in our response to Issue 5, we believe this habitat will 
support a whooping crane population. The Service is actively involved 
in coastal restoration and protection throughout Louisiana via our 
participation on the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and 
Restoration Act of 1990 (CWPPRA) Task Force. The CWPPRA program 
provides Federal grants to acquire, restore, and enhance wetlands of 
coastal States and was one of the first programs with Federal funds 
dedicated exclusively to the long-term restoration of coastal habitat 
(104 Stat. 4779). Two other restoration plans being implemented in 
coastal Louisiana are the Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration 
Plan (LCA) and Louisiana's Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable 
Coast (State Master Plan). The LCA, administered by the U.S. Army Corps 
of Engineers with State cost-share assistance, focuses on the 
protection of coastal wetlands. In addition, Louisiana's Coastal Impact 
Assistance Program (CIAP) also provides funding for wetland 
restoration. The State Master Plan serves as Louisiana's overarching 
document to guide hurricane protection and coastal restoration efforts 
in the State. We will continue to work with the CWPPRA Task Force and 
the State of Louisiana to address wetland restoration in the Mermentau 
Basin and throughout Louisiana.
    Issue 7: Several comments raised concern about contaminant risks, 
specifically mercury, and water quality issues for the release area.
    Our Response: The Service recognizes that exposure of wildlife to 
mercury, agricultural chemicals, and other contaminants is a concern, 
not only in Louisiana, but across the entire southeastern United 
States. Furthermore, there are few places in the world where these 
contaminants are not found, because they can be transported 
atmospherically as well as through waterways and food chains. One of 
the initial, critical questions the Service examined was whether the 
proposed release site currently supported a healthy population of 
aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, especially fish-eating birds. Such 
bird species are at a similar risk in regard to contaminant exposure 
because of their level in the food chain and their longevity, both of 
which contribute to exposure and bioaccumulation of contaminants, and 
also because their life history and physiology are comparable with that 
of whooping cranes. Our review concluded that there were indeed an 
abundance and a wide diversity of terrestrial and aquatic species that 
have been sustained at the release site. We believe based on this 
review that reintroduced birds will not be threatened by contaminants; 
however, in an effort to reduce our uncertainty about the potential 
risks, ground-truth our assumptions, and adopt a contingency plan, the 
Service will undertake three actions. First, we will initiate a review 
of the available information on contaminants in watersheds, and the 
potential pathways into the release site. Second, we will collaborate 
with current efforts that are examining the forage base at the release 
site to obtain samples for potential chemical analysis. We will seek 
funding to have selected samples analyzed for contaminants of concern, 
which will be identified during our review of available information. We 
anticipate that mercury, as well as a few selected agricultural 
chemicals, will likely be included in that analysis. Third, all 
whooping cranes will be fitted with tracking transmitters, which will 
allow us to monitor where they forage and enable us to sample from 
known foraging areas. The transmitters will also enable us to determine 
if the cranes move to an unsafe area, at which point they would be 
captured and relocated, and if one should die, we would be able to 
recover the body and determine the cause of death. We will also be 
conducting periodic health checks on the population, and the health 
screening will include contamination assessment from blood and feathers 
and other samples. Health examinations and mortality events will 
provide additional important data for implementing adaptive management 
strategies if determined to be appropriate.
    Issue 8: What are the plans to protect the whooping cranes during a 
    Our Response: There are always risks involved with any 
reintroduction effort. Hurricanes are a natural event that affected the 
historic resident population that occurred in coastal Louisiana, and 
hurricanes are an anticipated and accepted risk for this reintroduction 
project. The frequency, intensity, and location of hurricanes are hard 

[[Page 6078]]

predict. Like all resident bird populations that occur in coastal 
Louisiana, the whooping cranes will be left to their innate instincts 
to survive the effects of a hurricane if one comes ashore near the 
release site. To the extent practicable, attempts to capture and move 
young naive birds may be considered. Lightning has also been identified 
as a cause of mortality in the Florida Nonmigratory Population. Like 
hurricanes, there are no management tools to reduce this type of risk 
to whooping cranes.
    The Louisiana DWF is deploying tracking devices on the whooping 
cranes to monitor the health, well being, and success of the 
reintroduction. The whooping cranes will likely disperse during 
hurricanes, storm surge events, and possibly during droughts. Locating 
those refugia and evaluating their suitability will be important, as 
will identifying the overall dispersal of cranes.
    Issue 9: One commenter asked us to address the effects of climate 
change on the reintroduction.
    Our Response: Precise impacts of climate change to the coastal 
habitats of Louisiana are difficult to predict with any certitude. The 
release site is far enough from the coast that sea-level rise and 
associated loss of habitat are not expected to be issues for the 
reintroduction in the foreseeable future. Effects of climate change on 
environmental conditions, including levels of precipitation and 
hurricane intensity, are uncertain. How climate change might impact the 
ecosystems required by whooping cranes, including changes in plant 
communities, invasive species, and disease, is also hard to predict. 
The whooping crane reintroduction will have to use adaptive management 
to the extent practicable to respond to long-term changing conditions.
    As climate change disrupts ecological processes, southwest 
Louisiana is likely to experience significant changes in its physical 
and biological resources. Regional Climate Science Centers are being 
established by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of the 
Interior (DOI) within the United States. These centers will provide 
scientific information, tools, and techniques needed to manage land, 
water, wildlife, and cultural resources in the face of climate change. 
The USGS and the DOI centers will also work closely with a network of 
Landscape Conservation Cooperatives in which Federal, State (including 
the State of Louisiana), Tribal, and other managers and scientists will 
develop conservation, adaptation, and mitigation strategies for dealing 
with the impacts of climate change (U.S. Geological Survey 2010) (USFWS 
    Issue 10: In order to decrease the likelihood of take, best 
management practices should be adopted for each of the land use 
activities where potential concerns or issues could arise.
    Our Response: In the first year of the project, the Service will 
develop a Whooping Crane Best Management Practices (BMPs) document. 
This document will include a compilation of existing BMPs and 
Conservation Recommendations. We will also develop new BMPs as needed 
to address needs specific for Louisiana. As recommended, we will work 
toward developing BMPs for the land use activities identified in this 
rule (oil/gas exploration and extraction, aquaculture/agriculture/
livestock practices, water management, construction, restoration, 
recreation, and hunting). For example, oil/gas exploration and 
extraction are not a new issue for whooping cranes. The Aransas NWR has 
active oil/gas activities on and near the refuge and we will draw from 
their experience on these matters. The Service will also work with 
Louisiana DWF to develop a Whooping Crane Conservation and Management 
for Landowners document to assist interested landowners and land 
managers in contributing to whooping crane conservation and recovery.
    Issue 11: One commenter commented that the Service should confer 
with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services regarding 
its management of coyotes, blackbirds, aquatic rodents, pigeons, 
starlings and sparrows in Louisiana.
    Our Response: Section 7(a)(4) requires Federal agencies to confer 
(rather than consult) with the Service on actions that are likely to 
jeopardize the continued existence of a species proposed to be listed. 
The results of a conference are in the form of conservation 
recommendations that are optional as the agencies carry out, fund, or 
authorize activities. The Service will confer with Wildlife Services to 
ensure that wildlife management activities will minimize negative 
impacts to whooping cranes in Louisiana. The Service will also confer 
with all other Federal agencies regarding Federal activities that may 
impact conservation of whooping cranes.
    Issue 12: At the Central Flyway Council meeting and in a comment 
letter, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department suggested that the 
proposed NEP be expanded to include 16 Texas counties. In the comment 
letter, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department indicated support for the 
approach the Service would employ if a stray whooping crane for the 
reintroduced nonmigratory flock moved into Texas.
    Our Response: The Service cannot expand the NEP area to include 
counties in Texas that will be needed by the AWBP to reach recovery. 
The winter habitat and migration corridor of the AWBP, the only natural 
wild whooping crane population, runs north from the Central Texas coast 
up to the Northwest Territories in Canada. With no delisting target 
set, and studies indicating the AWBP whooping cranes will have to 
extend northward up the Texas coast to nearly Freeport to meet the 
criteria for reclassification to threatened status, the Service 
believes that the marshes along the Texas coast all the way to the 
Louisiana border will someday be occupied by whooping cranes if the 
species is ever to be numerous enough to delist. Therefore, we believe 
habitat along the Texas coast and in the referenced counties is 
important to the AWBP whooping cranes and the continued progression of 
their recovery.
    The Service intends to use the maximum management flexibility 
possible to avoid and/or minimize any disruption of human activities 
caused by Louisiana whooping cranes that might stray into Texas, and 
will attempt to catch these stray birds and return them to Louisiana if 
they cannot be managed in a manner satisfactory to Texas. In addition, 
we will continue to work closely with our State agency partners in both 
Louisiana and Texas as explained in this rule and our special 

Required Determinations

Regulatory Planning and Review (E.O. 12866)

    The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has determined that this 
rule is not significant under Executive Order 12866 (E.O. 12866). OMB 
bases its determination upon the following four criteria:
    (a) Whether the rule will have an annual effect of $100 million or 
more on the economy or adversely affect an economic sector, 
productivity, jobs, the environment, or other units of the government.
    (b) Whether the rule will create inconsistencies with other Federal 
agencies' actions.
    (c) Whether the rule will materially affect entitlements, grants, 
user fees, loan programs, or the rights and obligations of their 
    (d) Whether the rule raises novel legal or policy issues.

[[Page 6079]]

Regulatory Flexibility Act (5 U.S.C. 601 et seq.)

    Under the Regulatory Flexibility Act (as amended by the Small 
Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) of 1996; 5 U.S.C. 
801 et seq.), whenever a Federal agency is required to publish a notice 
of rulemaking for any proposed or final rule, it must prepare, and make 
available for public comment, a regulatory flexibility analysis that 
describes the effect of the rule on small entities (i.e., small 
businesses, small organizations, and small government jurisdictions). 
However, no regulatory flexibility analysis is required if the head of 
an agency certifies that the rule will not have a significant economic 
impact on a substantial number of small entities. The SBREFA amended 
the Regulatory Flexibility Act to require Federal agencies to provide a 
statement of the factual basis for certifying that a rule will not have 
a significant economic impact on a substantial number of small 
entities. We certify that this rule would not have a significant 
economic effect on a substantial number of small entities. The 
following discussion explains our rationale.
    The area affected by this rule includes the State of Louisiana. 
Because NEP designation does not establish substantial new regulation 
of activities, we do not expect this rule to have any significant 
effect on recreational, agricultural, or development activities. 
Although the entire NEP boundary encompasses a large area, the section 
of the NEP area where we anticipate the establishment of an 
experimental population of nonmigratory whooping cranes is mainly 
public land owned by the State of Louisiana. Because of the regulatory 
flexibility for Federal agency actions provided by the NEP designation 
and the exemption for incidental take in the special rule, we do not 
expect this rule to have significant effects on any activities within 
Tribal, Federal, State, or private lands within the NEP.
    On national wildlife refuges and units of the National Park System 
within the NEP, Federal action agencies are required to consult with 
us, under section 7(a)(2) of the ESA, on any of their activities that 
may affect the whooping crane. In portions of the NEP outside of 
National Wildlife Refuge System and National Park Service lands, in 
regard to section 7(a)(2), the population is treated as proposed for 
listing and Federal action agencies are not required to consult on 
their activities. Section 7(a)(4) requires Federal agencies to confer 
(rather than consult) with the Service on actions that are likely to 
jeopardize the continued existence of a proposed species. But because 
the NEP is, by definition, not essential to the continued existence of 
the species, conferring will likely never be required for the whooping 
crane population within the NEP area. Furthermore, the results of a 
conference are advisory in nature and do not restrict agencies from 
carrying out, funding, or authorizing activities.
    In addition, section 7(a)(1) requires Federal agencies to use their 
authorities to carry out programs to further the conservation of listed 
species, and this requirement will apply on any lands within the NEP 
area. As a result, and in accordance with these regulations, some 
modifications to proposed Federal actions within the NEP area may occur 
to benefit the whooping crane, but we do not expect projects to be 
halted or substantially modified as a result of these regulations.
    The principal activities on private property near the expected 
reestablishment area in the NEP are agriculture, ranching, oil and gas 
exploration and extraction, and recreation. The presence of whooping 
cranes would likely not affect the use of lands for these purposes, 
because there would be no new or additional economic or regulatory 
restrictions imposed upon States, non-Federal entities, or members of 
the public due to the presence of whooping cranes. Therefore, this 
rulemaking is not expected to have any significant adverse impacts to 
recreation, agriculture, oil and gas exploration or extraction, or any 
development activities.

Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (2 U.S.C. 1501 et seq.)

    In accordance with the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (2 U.S.C. 1501 
et seq.):
    (1) This rule will not ``significantly or uniquely'' affect small 
governments. We have determined and certify pursuant to the Unfunded 
Mandates Reform Act, 2 U.S.C. 1502 et seq., that this rulemaking will 
not impose a cost of $100 million or more in any given year on local or 
State governments or private entities. A Small Government Agency Plan 
is not required. Small governments will not be affected because the NEP 
designation will not place additional requirements on any city, county, 
or other local municipality.
    (2) This rule will not produce a Federal mandate of $100 million or 
greater in any year (i.e., it is not a ``significant regulatory 
action'' under the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act). This NEP designation 
for whooping crane would not impose any additional management or 
protection requirements on the States or other entities.

Takings (E.O. 12630)

    In accordance with Executive Order 12630, the rule does not have 
significant takings implications. This rule allows for the taking of 
reintroduced whooping cranes when such take is incidental to an 
otherwise legal activity, such as recreation (e.g., fishing, boating, 
wading, or swimming), agriculture, oil and gas exploration and 
extraction, and other activities that are in accordance with Federal, 
State, and local laws and regulations. Therefore, we do not believe the 
reintroduction of whooping cranes conflicts with existing human 
activities, hinders uses of private and public lands, or hinders 
subsurface mineral rights, such as oil and gas exploration and 
extraction, within the NEP area.
    A takings implication assessment is not required because this rule: 
(1) Will not effectively compel a property owner to suffer a physical 
invasion of property, and (2) will not deny all economically beneficial 
or productive use of the land or aquatic resources. This rule will 
substantially advance a legitimate government interest (conservation 
and recovery of a listed bird species), and will not present a barrier 
to all reasonable and expected beneficial use of private property.

Federalism (E.O. 13132)

    In accordance with Executive Order 13132, we have considered 
whether this rule has significant Federalism effects and have 
determined that a Federalism assessment is not required. This rule will 
not have substantial direct effects on the States, on the relationship 
between the Federal Government and the States, or on the distribution 
of power and responsibilities among the various levels of government. 
In keeping with Department of the Interior policy, we requested 
information from and coordinated development of this rule with the 
affected resource agencies in Louisiana. Achieving the recovery goals 
for this species will contribute to its eventual delisting and return 
to State management. No intrusion on State policy or administration is 
expected, roles or responsibilities of Federal or State governments 
will not change, and fiscal capacity will not be substantially directly 
    The special rule operates to maintain the existing relationship 
between the State and the Federal Government and is being undertaken in 
coordination with the State of Louisiana. We have cooperated with 
Louisiana DWF in the

[[Page 6080]]

preparation of this rule. Therefore, this rule does not have 
significant Federalism effects or implications to warrant the 
preparation of a Federalism assessment pursuant to the provisions of 
Executive Order 13132.

Civil Justice Reform

    In accordance with Executive Order 12988 (February 7, 1996; 61 FR 
4729), the Office of the Solicitor has determined that this rule will 
not unduly burden the judicial system and will meet the requirements of 
sections (3)(a) and (3)(b)(2) of the Order.

Paperwork Reduction Act

    Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regulations at 5 CFR 1320, 
which implement provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. 
3501 et seq.), require that Federal agencies obtain approval from OMB 
before collecting information from the public. This rule does not 
include any new collections of information that require approval by OMB 
under the Paperwork Reduction Act. OMB has approved our collection of 
information associated with reporting the taking of experimental 
populations and assigned control number 1018-0095, which expires March 
31, 2011. We may not collect or sponsor and you are not required to 
respond to a collection of information unless it displays a currently 
valid OMB control number.

National Environmental Policy Act

    We have prepared an environmental assessment as defined by the 
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq. It is 
available from the Jacksonville Field Office (see ADDRESSES).

Government-to-Government Relationship With Tribes

    In accordance with the President's memorandum of April 29, 1994, 
``Government-to-Government Relations with Native American Tribal 
Governments'' (59 FR 229511), Executive Order 13175, and the Department 
of the Interior Manual Chapter 512 DM 2, we have considered possible 
effects on and have notified the Native American Tribes within the NEP. 
They have been advised through verbal and written contact, including 
informational mailings from the Service. If future activities resulting 
from this rule may affect Tribal resources, a Plan of Cooperation will 
be developed with the affected Tribe or Tribes.

Energy Supply, Distribution, or Use (E.O. 13211)

    On May 18, 2001, the President issued Executive Order 13211 on 
regulations that significantly affect energy supply, distribution, and 
use. Executive Order 13211 requires agencies to prepare Statements of 
Energy Effects when undertaking certain actions. This rule is not 
expected to significantly affect energy supplies, distribution, and 
use. Therefore, this action is not a significant energy action and no 
Statement of Energy Effects is required.
Effective Date
    We find good cause under the Administrative Procedure Act (5 U.S.C. 
553(d)(3)) to make this rule effective upon publication. The prompt 
release of 11 currently available captive-reared young-of-the-year (9-
10 months) whooping cranes is necessary because: (1) In the south, 
February is the natural time of the year that nonmigratory whooping 
cranes may begin a new reproduction effort, which results in the 
juveniles from the previous year to disperse. Thus, late winter is an 
optimum time for juvenile whooping cranes to start to become adapted to 
life in the wild on their own; (2) the young cranes become less 
suitable for wild release if they are held in captivity for too long; 
(3) there will be a reduced predator risk for the release cohort during 
the late winter because alligators are less active; and (4) the Aransas 
Wood Buffalo population of whooping cranes, the only remaining natural 
population of whooping cranes in North America, remains very 
endangered. In order to try to achieve recovery as expeditiously as 
possible, it is important to conduct reintroduction efforts as soon as 
possible, before a possible catastrophe might hit the Aransas Wood 
Buffalo flock. Moreover, we expect no conflicts to occur from the 
reintroduction of whooping cranes as set forth in this rule to any 
existing or anticipated Federal, State, Tribal, or local government or 
private actions, including those pertaining to agriculture, 
aquaculture, livestock production, oil or gas exploration and 
extraction, pesticide application, water management, construction, 
recreation, trapping, or hunting.

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited in this rule is available 
upon request from the Jacksonville Field Office (see FOR FURTHER 


    The principal authors of this rule are Bill Brooks, of the 
Jacksonville, Florida, Field Office; and Deborah Fuller, of the 
Lafayette, Louisiana, Field Office (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION 

List of Subjects in 50 CFR Part 17

    Endangered and threatened species, Exports, Imports, Reporting and 
recordkeeping requirements, Transportation.

Regulation Promulgation

    Accordingly, we amend part 17, subchapter B of chapter I, title 50 
of the Code of Federal Regulations, as set forth below:


1. The authority citation for part 17 continues to read as follows:

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1361-1407; 16 U.S.C. 1531-1544; 16 U.S.C. 
4201-4245; Pub. L. 99-625, 100 Stat. 3500; unless otherwise noted.

2. Amend Sec.  17.11(h) by revising the existing entry for ``Crane, 
whooping'' under ``BIRDS'' to read as follows:

Sec.  17.11  Endangered and threatened wildlife.

* * * * *
    (h) * * *

[[Page 6081]]

                    Species                                           Vertebrate
------------------------------------------------                   population where
                                                  Historic range     endangered or      Status       When listed     Critical  habitat    Special rules
         Common name            Scientific name                       threatened
                                                                      * * * * * * *
                                                                      * * * * * * *
Crane, whooping..............  Grus americana..  Canada, U.S.A.    Entire, except    E..........  1,3..............  17.95(b).........  NA.
                                                  (Rocky            where listed as
                                                  Mountains east    an experimental
                                                  to Carolinas),    population.
Do...........................  Do..............  Do..............  U.S.A. (AL, AR,   XN.........  487, 621, 710,     NA...............  17.84(h).
                                                                    CO, FL, GA, ID,                785.
                                                                    IL, IN, IA, KY,
                                                                    LA, MI, MN, MS,
                                                                    MO, NC, NM, OH,
                                                                    SC, TN, UT, VA,
                                                                    WI, WV, western
                                                                    half of WY).
                                                                      * * * * * * *

* * * * *

3. Amend Sec.  17.84 by revising paragraph (h) to read as follows:

Sec.  17.84  Special rules--vertebrates.

* * * * *
    (h) Whooping crane (Grus americana). (1) The whooping crane 
populations identified in paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through (iv) of this 
section are nonessential experimental populations (NEPs) as defined in 
Sec.  17.80.
    (i) The only natural extant population of whooping cranes, known as 
the Aransas/Wood Buffalo National Park population, occurs well west of 
the Mississippi River. This population nests in the Northwest 
Territories and adjacent areas of Alberta, Canada, primarily within the 
boundaries of the Wood Buffalo National Park, and winters along the 
Central Texas Gulf of Mexico coast at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
    (ii) No natural populations of whooping cranes are likely to come 
into contact with the NEPs set forth in paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through 
(iv) of this section. Whooping cranes adhere to ancestral breeding 
grounds, leaving little possibility that individuals from the extant 
Aransas/Wood Buffalo National Park population will stray into the NEPs. 
Studies of whooping cranes have shown that migration is a learned 
rather than an innate behavior.
    (2) No person may take this species in the wild in the experimental 
population areas, except when such take is accidental and incidental to 
an otherwise lawful activity, or as provided in paragraphs (h)(3) and 
(4) of this section. Examples of otherwise lawful activities include, 
but are not limited to, oil and gas exploration and extraction, 
aquacultural practices, agricultural practices, pesticide application, 
water management, construction, recreation, trapping, or hunting, when 
such activities are in full compliance with all applicable laws and 
    (3) Any person with a valid permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife 
Service (Service) under Sec.  17.32 may take whooping cranes in the 
wild in the experimental population areas for educational purposes, 
scientific purposes, the enhancement of propagation or survival of the 
species, and other conservation purposes consistent with the ESA and in 
accordance with applicable State fish and wildlife conservation laws 
and regulations.
    (4) Any employee or agent of the Service or State wildlife agency 
who is designated for such purposes, when acting in the course of 
official duties, may take a whooping crane in the wild in the 
experimental population areas if such action is necessary to:
    (i) Relocate a whooping crane to avoid conflict with human 
    (ii) Relocate a whooping crane that has moved outside any of the 
areas identified in paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through (iv) of this section, 
when removal is necessary or requested and is authorized by a valid 
permit under Sec.  17.22;
    (iii) Relocate whooping cranes within the experimental population 
areas to improve survival and recovery prospects;
    (iv) Relocate whooping cranes from the experimental population 
areas into captivity;
    (v) Aid a sick, injured, or orphaned whooping crane; or
    (vi) Dispose of a dead specimen or salvage a dead specimen that may 
be useful for scientific study.
    (5) Any taking pursuant to paragraphs (h)(3) and (4) of this 
section must be immediately reported to the National Whooping Crane 
Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 100, Austwell, TX 
77950 (Phone: 361-286-3559), who, in conjunction with his counterpart 
in the Canadian Wildlife Service, will determine the disposition of any 
live or dead specimens.
    (6) No person shall possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, ship, 
import, or export by any means whatsoever, any such species from the 
experimental populations taken in violation of these regulations or in 
violation of applicable State fish and wildlife laws or regulations or 
the Endangered Species Act.
    (7) It is unlawful for any person to attempt to commit, solicit 
another to commit, or cause to be committed any offense defined in 
paragraphs (h)(2) through (6) of this section.
    (8) The Service will not mandate any closure of areas, including 
National Wildlife Refuges, during hunting or conservation order 
seasons, or closure or modification of hunting or conservation order 
seasons, in the following situations:
    (i) For the purpose of avoiding take of whooping cranes in the NEPs 
identified in paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through (iv) of this section;
    (ii) If a clearly marked whooping crane from the NEPs identified in 
paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through (iv) of this section wanders outside the 
designated NEP areas. In this situation, the Service will attempt to 
capture the stray bird and return it to the appropriate area if removal 
is requested by the State.
    (9) All whooping cranes found in the wild within the boundaries 
listed in paragraphs (h)(9)(i) through (iv) of this section will be 
considered nonessential experimental animals. Geographic areas the 
nonessential experimental populations may inhabit are within the 
historic range of the whooping crane in

[[Page 6082]]

the United States and include the following:
    (i) The entire State of Florida (the Kissimmee Prairie NEP). The 
reintroduction site is the Kissimmee Prairie portions of Polk, Osceola, 
Highlands, and Okeechobee Counties. The experimental population 
released at Kissimmee Prairie is expected to remain mostly within the 
prairie region of central Florida.
    (ii) The States of Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah, and the 
western half of the State of Wyoming (the Rocky Mountain NEP).
    (iii) That portion of the eastern contiguous United States that 
includes 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 (the Eastern Migratory NEP). Whooping 
cranes within this population are expected to occur mostly within the 
States of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, 
and Florida. The additional States included within the experimental 
population area are those expected to receive occasional use by the 
cranes, or which may be used as breeding or wintering areas in the 
event of future population expansion.
    (iv) The entire State of Louisiana (the Louisiana Nonmigratory 
NEP). The reintroduction site is the White Lake Wetlands Conservation 
Area of southwestern Louisiana in Vermilion Parish. Current information 
indicates that White Lake is the historic location of a resident 
nonmigratory population of whooping cranes that bred and reared young 
in Louisiana. Whooping cranes within this nonmigratory population are 
expected to occur mostly within the White Lake Wetlands Conservation 
Area and the nearby wetlands in Vermilion Parish. The marshes and 
wetlands of southwestern Louisiana are expected to receive occasional 
use by the cranes and may be used in the event of future population 
    (v) A map of all NEP areas in the United States for whooping cranes 


    (10) The reintroduced populations will be monitored during the 
duration of the projects by the use of radio telemetry and other 
appropriate measures. Any animal that is determined to be sick, 
injured, or otherwise in need of special care will be recaptured to the 
extent possible by Service and/or State wildlife personnel or their 
designated agent and given appropriate care. Such animals will be 
released back to the wild as soon as possible, unless physical or 
behavioral problems make it necessary to return them to a captive-
breeding facility.
    (11) The Service will reevaluate the status of the experimental 
populations periodically to determine future management needs. This 
review will take into account the reproductive success and movement 
patterns of the individuals released within the experimental population 
* * * * *

    Dated: January 26, 2011.
Jane Lyder,
Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.
[FR Doc. 2011-2367 Filed 2-2-11; 8:45 am]