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Historic Ultralight Migration Leads Majestic Whooping Cranes Over the Skies of Kentucky


November 10, 2003

Heather Ray, Operation Migration, Inc. - (905) 718-1292 (cell—on-site with migration)
Rachel F. Levin, WCEP/USFWS, 612-713-5311 or 612-309-5760 (cell)
Joan Garland, International Crane Foundation, 608-356-9462 x142 or 608-381-1262 (cell)
Tom MacKenzie, USFWS Southeast Region 404-679-7291 or 678-296-6400 (cell)

Sixteen endangered whooping crane chicks reached Kentucky on Saturday, November 8, on their 1,228-mile ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge along Florida's central Gulf Coast.

These majestic birds, the largest in North America, left Necedah on October 8, following three ultralight aircraft piloted by Operation Migration pilots.

To date, the whooping crane chicks have traveled 523 miles during their migration, and they are in Washington County, Kentucky today.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), an international coalition of public and private groups, isconducting this project in an effort to reintroduce this highly imperiled species in eastern North America.

“It is still awe-inspiring to be part of this operation,” said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This is one of the finest examples of conservation partnership in America today with Federal and State experts teaming with Non-Profit groups with a single-minded purpose of resurrecting the historic migrating route.”

The whooping crane chickshatched at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, where they were introduced to ultralights and raised in isolation from humans. The Operation Migration pilots along with biologists from Patuxent and the International Crane Foundation spent the summer conditioning the cranes to fly gradually longer flights behind the ultralights--the cranes’ “surrogate parents.”

One of the sixteen cranes that was conditioned at Necedah this summer did not leave with its flockmates on the ultralight-led migration. Crane 3 was diagnosed with a small fracture in her right leg and underwent surgery. Until October 26, when herleg had healed, the crane was being transported separately along the migration and put in the pens each night with her flockmates so that she could continue learning wild crane behavior. Crane 3 was able to fly with the flock when they flew from La Salle County to Kankakee County, Illinois.

These sixteen cranes represent the third generation of birds to make this historic, assisted migration from Wisconsin to Florida. In 2001, seven of 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.

In 2002, the WCEP migration teamconditioned a second group and guided 17 juvenile cranes to Chassahowitzka NWR. One was lost during the migration when it collided with an ultralight. Sixteen returned to Wisconsin this past spring.

The WCEP monitoring team is presently tracking the location of all of the cranes from the "Class of 2001" and “Class of 2002” that are headed south.

The reintroduction is part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled whooping crane, 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, 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 the species from endangered to threatened status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventual recovery.

In 1998, an international coalition of state and federal governments and private organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to spearhead themigratory reintroductionproject 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 WCEP is to establish a migrating flock of at least 125 birds including 25 adult breeding pairs, restoring the species to eastern North America.

Founding members of 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, visit the WCEP website at Daily updates are recorded at (904) 232-2580 ext. 102.

Note: B-roll is available by calling (905) 718-1292.

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Phone: 404/679-7289 Fax: 404/679-7286

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