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Ultra light-Led Endangered Whooping Cranes Reach Home
-- Will join four from last year's migration --


November 30, 2002

Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - (404) 679-7291 or (678) 296-6400 (cell)
Shawn Gillette, (352) 563-2088 ext 205
Heather Ray, Operation Migration, Inc. - (905) 718-1292 (cell)
Henry Cabbage, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (850) 488-8843


The sixteen whooping cranes following four ultra light aircraft reached their wintering base today finishing their 1,200-mile fall migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast. Prior to their historic landing, they made a rare public appearance flying over a welcoming crowd of about 200 supporters at the Crystal River mall in Crystal River, Florida.

These majestic birds, the largest in North America, left Necedah on October 13, 2002, following four ultra light aircraft flown by Operation Migration. International Crane Foundation will monitor their winter behavior and will track them on their spring migration north around April 2003.

"It is truly a great day for wildlife," said Sam D. Hamilton, the Service's Southeast Regional Director. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to be a partner in this multi-year reintroduction project with our state and non-profit partners, without which, this simply would not have happened."

These sixteen whooping cranes are the second generation of birds to make this historic, assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. One crane, injured on the first day of the migration when the weather took a turn for the worse causing a mid-air collision, had to be euthanized after it did not respond to 12 days of treatment by veterinarians at the International Crane Foundation.

In 2001, seven of the eight whooping cranes that began the pilot fall migration made it to Florida safely. Five of these seven birds survived the winter and made an unassisted, successful spring migration back to Wisconsin. Four of the five reached Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The last crane is heading south and was last seen at the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County, Tennessee.

"We're part of the whole team and were proud of the bunch," said Joe Duff, Team Leader, and co-founder of Operation Migration. "What I'm most amazed at is the resiliency of these birds that have shown such tenacity. We flew today with more birds than even existed in the early forties. That's a comeback that has to keep going."

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled species, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today numbers only about 260 birds in the wild. Except for the Wisconsin-Florida birds now migrating, the continent's only other migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of about 100 cranes remain year-round in central Florida, as part of an ongoing reintroduction study
led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. This reintroduction would not only restore the whooper to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population that could lead to downlisting and eventual recovery.

Major improvements made to habitat from last year Volunteers, contractors and Federal Employees, and at Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge been busy since the class of 2001 migrated north in April of 2002. Since last year, expanded their protective pen from 1 1/2 to 4 acres and created a unique habitat just for the whooping cranes.

"We built up an existing oyster reef for night roosting in the water with 90 tons of natural shell using 300 helicopter loads," said Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge manager Jim Kraus. "We've already spotted whooping crane tracks on the reef, which has already silted in by the tides."

Kraus went on to say the Service also enhanced their wintering habitat with prescribed burns to open up space on their salt marsh islands, making it more crane friendly. They also enlarged and elevated the observation blind for biologists, as they have larger area to view this year.

"I would say this is a tribute to those who helped create this refuge in the forties," said Kraus. "I bet they had no idea this coastal salt marsh refuge would play such a valuable role in whooping crane recovery."

In 1998, an international coalition of state and federal governments and non-profit organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) to spearhead the recovery initiative for the whooping crane, a federally listed endangered species. More than 35 private landowners have volunteered their property as stopover sites for the cranes and migration team. A temporary pen keeps the cranes safe from predators between each morning's flight, and all of the team that interacts with the cranes wear costumes to mask their human form and use adult crane puppet heads to mimic adult bird behaviors. The goal of the WCEP is to establish a migrating flock of at least 125 birds including 25 adult breeding pairs, restoring the species to eastern North America.

The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. This species lives and breeds in extensive wetlands, where it feeds upon aquatic organisms. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown.

Founding members of the WCEP include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Crane Foundation, the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, Operation Migration, Inc., National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel.

For daily updates and press kits & B-roll, visit the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership website at Daily updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580 ext. 102.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 94-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System that encompasses more than 535 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 70 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resource offices, and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

Ultra LIght aircraft pilot lands in Florida Reporters rush to photograph costumed ultra light pilot Whooping cranes fly over crowd at Crystal River
Ultra Light aircraft pilot of Operation Migration land after a 1,200 mile voyage from Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Nov. 30, 2002. The pilots wear whooping crane costumes to continue the imprinting process on the young birds. Photo Credit: Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Reporters rush to photograph costumed ultra Light aircraft pilots of Operation Migration landing after a 1,200 mile voyage from Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Nov. 30, 2002. Photo Credit: Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Whooping cranes fly over a crowd of 200 at Crystal River mall Saturday Nov 30, 2002 at 8:00 am. Photo credit: Tom MacKenzie, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.


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