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Whooping Crane migration assist to end

Fern Davies

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(Very well-written and thorough article!)


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided it will no longer support the use of ultralight aircraft to lead young whooping cranes on their fall migration to Florida.

The decision ends the most visible and expensive strategy since 2001 to bring back the endangered birds to the eastern United States.

Officials announced late Friday that the ultralight-guided flights to the birds' wintering home on the Gulf Coast of Florida — now in their final days for 2015-'16 — will be the last.

The public-private effort has spent more than $20 million to establish a flock that is distinct from a larger, more robust flock of whooping cranes migrating between the Texas Gulf Coast and northern Canada. The western flock does not require similar intervention.

The agency signaled its intent to move away from mechanized migration last year. But it was unclear then whether Operation Migration, the nonprofit group that has led the birds from Wisconsin to Florida for 15 years, would be allowed to have another year or two to teach birds to migrate with ultralights.

The Canadian-based group has opposed the end of ultralights and mounted an online petition drive to generate support for its cause. The group says crane survivorship is better with ultralights than another method, where young cranes pick up cues from other adult cranes and follow them south.

The final decision took place in Baraboo at a meeting of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, according to Pete Fasbender of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a field office supervisor based in Bloomington, Minn.

"The real short answer is that we felt that this was in the best interest of the birds," said Fasbender, who has oversight responsibility for the flock in the eastern U.S.

The decision was motivated by the lack of success the birds have seen in producing chicks and raising them in the wild.

Since 2001, nearly 250 whooping cranes have been released in Wisconsin. About 93 are currently alive, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. However, only 10 chicks have survived to fledge.

Many first-time parents are known to abandon their nests. One reason is due to nettlesome black flies at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. But biologists have determined that other factors are probably also at play.

Experts in crane biology and other fields have concluded that the use of aircraft and other human interaction are having a negative effect on the birds. Another worrisome technique is the use of costumed humans who help care for chicks. The practices apparently are not allowing the birds to imprint parenting skills they need to raise their own chicks.

Since 2005, the chicks that fledged and were born in the wild came from only five pairs of adults, according to Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Why aren't the others getting it?" asked Fasbender. "The common thread is this lack of parenting skills."

During meetings last week, there was agreement to end the flights and limit human interaction with chicks, including minimizing interactions with costumed handlers.

The partnership includes Operation Migration and staff from the Baraboo-based International Crane Foundation, the largest crane conservation organization in the world. Barry Hartup, director of veterinary service, said the crane foundation agrees with the changes.

"We have to find ways to reduce the element of artificiality," Hartup said.

The decision is a major setback for Operation Migration, which disagreed with ending the use of ultralights. Staff are currently in northern Florida, just short of the final destination of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The ultralight migration this year has lasted more than 100 days, with the birds flying on days when the weather is good and spending nights in pens.

Fasbender and Hartup believe there is a role for Operation Migration, which can use aircraft for field work and continue its efforts in fundraising, outreach and public relations.

The group says that it has used more than $10 million in donations for its crane work.

Joe Duff, chief executive officer of Operation Migration, posted comments on the decision on the group's website on Saturday.

"It is sad to see the end of aircraft led migration," Duff wrote. "There will be many people who will be disappointed, and even a few who will celebrate. But those reactions are all about people and our mantra has always been, it's about the birds."

About Lee Bergquist lee-bergquist.jpg

Lee Bergquist covers environmental issues and is author of "Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete."

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Here's the USFWS press release on the subject: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/812.html


(From back in October 2015)


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Statement on Vision for Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes

The goal of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is to establish a self-sustaining migratory population of whooping cranes in the eastern United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working within the partnership to reach that goal.

In 2001 WCEP initiated a 10-year experiment to see if ultralight led-migrations could help us in meeting that goal. This is now the 15th year of that 10-year experiment. In those 15 years, the partnership appears to have been successful at reaching the migratory component of our goal using several release methods.

Now that the Eastern Migratory Population is established, the recently released FWS 5-year vision focuses on working toward reaching the self-sustaining aspect of our goal, which has been hindered in the past by low reproductive success. Current captive rearing techniques may not give whooping cranes the characteristics they need to successfully reproduce in the wild.


WCEP has examined various tools over the years to increase reproductive success. An external review of WCEP operations in 2010 recommended reducing artificiality and giving priority to release methods that rely less on exposure to humans. In 2013, the WCEP guidance team amended their existing 5-year strategic plan to reflect these recommendations. Additionally, a “Science Re-boot” workshop, held in spring 2015 with scientists working on wildlife restorations throughout the world, also raised concerns about the artificiality of captive rearing. The Service now believes it is appropriate to focus on rearing and release tools that are less artificial, and which have the greatest potential to increase reproductive success in the population.


As the federal agency responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the best available information and expert assessments to help guide our decisions. The Service has shared its 5-year vision with the WCEP partners, and it will be discussed by the partners as WCEP looks ahead to its next 5-year strategic plan. The agency is seeking additional information from our partners to help make a more informed decision about future work aimed at recovering whooping cranes.


We look forward to continuing the discussion as we move toward finalizing plans for the next five years and reaching our shared goal of a self-sustaining migratory population. For more information, including a list of questions and answers about the Service’s 5-year vision for the Eastern Migratory Population of whooping cranes, go to: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/whoopingcrane/5yrVisionfaq.pdf.

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