Whooping Cranes Survived Many Adversities

Historical Troubles

Whooping cranes have struggled to survive various adversities since man came to the North American continent. First it was the American Indians who killed them and collected their eggs for food and feathers. It is believed however that the Indians did only minor harm because their hunting equipment was primitive.                                                  Territorial Dispute Whooping Cranes at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Problems increased tremendously for the whoopers after the Europeans migrated to the continent. The new settlers had guns and hunted the cranes for food. But their most damaging tools were their shovels, axes and plows. These tools were used to destroy millions of acres of whooping crane habitat. Settlers drained wetlands with their shovels, cleared forest with their axes and plowed the former wetlands and forest for agricultural purposes. Yet, with all the killing and habitat destruction some of the whoopers survived. Only 14 remained in the wild in 1940 but the population slowly increased to 304 in 2014.

Disaster in Galveston Bay

Fortunately, the majority of these endangered whooping cranes have made it through some serious adversities during the past decade. The most recent hazard was the barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel that dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. The spilled oil followed the Gulf of Mexico currents westward down the coast and reached the Matagorda Island unit of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Oil killed wildlife and damaged the environment in some of the gulf waters, wetlands, estuaries and beaches, but not on Aransas Refuge.

 A deceased bird as the result of the Galveston Oil Spill
Bird soaked in oil.

Hundreds of oil spill cleanup workers were deployed to Matagorda Island to remove the oil due to the presents of whooping cranes and other endangered wildlife. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team worked with great care scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels and removed it from the beach. Aransas Refuge Manager Sonny Perez advised Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) that “none of the oil got into the marshes or bay systems on Matagorda Island or any other part of the refuge.” However, on other areas of the Texas coast many other wild birds, turtles and porpoises were killed.

The latest information available from NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service teams reported: “21 dolphins and 4 turtles stranded. Most of these are in the Galveston, TX area but reports from Matagorda Island are increasing. All of the dolphins were dead, two turtles were captured alive and are being rehabilitated. Most of the animals were not visibly oiled but necropsies are still underway. Approximately 150 dead birds have been reported in the Galveston area and 30 in the Matagorda area.” FOTWW has asked for a final tally of dead animals.

Oil Cleanup Completed? 

Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto told FOTWW that “cleanup of oil on Matagorda Island beach is completed but we are closely monitoring to determine if more oil washes onto the beach.” Prieto also advised, “We believe all of the whooping cranes have departed Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and are currently migrating on their way to their Canadian nesting grounds. We have not observes any whoopers on the refuge in several days”.

According to Wade Harrell, U.S. Whooping Crane Recovery Coordinator, “This season we documented four whooping crane mortalities on and around Aransas NWR.”  “ FOTWW understands that except for the four documented mortalities, all of the estimated 304 whooping cranes survived the winter on Aransas Refuge. Some of the whoopers have already reached Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, Canada and will soon begin building their nests according John McKinnon, Wood Buffalo National Park. This is all great news for those who support the only remaining wild, self-sustaining population of whooping cranes on the planet.

Horror on the Gulf 

Whooping cranes dodged another even larger disaster known as the “BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill”.  In 2010 this horrific accident killed 11 people and spilled over four million barrels of oil into the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. While this disaster did not have any known effects on whooping cranes it did have catastrophic effect on other birds, fishes, porpoises, shell fish, turtles and other wildlife species.

Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.
Fire boat response crews battling the blazing remants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon off Louisiana.

The effect on bird populations in the area of the BP oil spill is just now being realized according to some. This week, the New York Times reported in “Still Counting Gulf Spill’s Dead Birds,” about a peer-reviewed study that estimates between 600,000 – 800,000 coastal water birds were killed in the first three months of the 2010 BP oil disaster1. According to the Times article, “This figure represents only a portion of the total bird mortality that occurred as a result of the spill. The study, which uses two different modeling techniques, is the first public estimate of a portion of bird mortality caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. We know that the ecosystem is deeply damaged and will take years to begin to recover.”

Fortunately, whooping cranes have not been harmed by two of the largest oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico in recent memory. FOTWW believes however that we must remain vigilant because a hurricane could possibly push some of the off shore submerged oil onto beaches and wetlands along the coast. And there is always the danger that some vessel loaded with oil or chemicals navigating along the Intracoastal Waterway could have an accident. The Intracoastal Waterway is located immediately adjacent to Aransas Refuge for about 17 miles.

Lingering Oil Worries 

Then there is the lingering worry about the abandoned and capped, but leaking oil and gas wells. According to an Associate Press news story “there are over 27,000 oil and gas wells within the Gulf of Mexico that have abandoned and have been capped to prevent the leakage of oil and gas from them. About 3,500 of these wells are oil and gas wells that have been “temporarily abandoned” and have been capped in a less stringent manner than other wells which were “permanently” capped.

Neither industry nor government checks for leaks at the oil and gas wells abandoned in the Gulf of Mexico since the late 1940s. Abandoned wells are known sometimes to fail both on land and offshore. It happens so often that a technical term has been coined for the repair job: “re-abandonment.” Collectively these wells may be allowing tremendous quantities of waste onto the gulf shores and causing harm to fish and wildlife.

Hurricane Threats 

Another major threat to whoopers and other wildlife on Aransas Refuge is hurricanes. In August of 1965 a major hurricane slammed into Matagorda Island causing significant damage. Mercifully the whooping cranes were still at Canada’s Wood Buffalo nesting grounds getting ready for their southward migration. Increasingly, however, late-summer storms are occurring and may happen when whooping cranes have arrived on Aransas.

Aransas has both a “Hurricane Plan” and an “Oil Spill Plan” according to Aransas Refuge Assistant Manager Felipe Prieto. So, the refuge officials are at well informed on what course of actions they will take in case of emergencies. Such plans can reduce damages when emergencies occur.

Fresh Water Crisis Looms

“Drought is an ongoing major adversity for Aransas Refuge. The refuge has been short on rainfall for the past three years” advised Refuge Manager Sonny Perez.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Fresh water is necessary for a healthy environment on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact the onset of a prolonged drought in Texas in the fall of 2008 caused serious problems for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock. The Aransas Refuge gets much of its fresh water from the Guadalupe River. Fresh water maintains the salinity of the coastal wetlands and allows for the production of blue crabs, the whooping crane’s major winter food. The prolonged drought and the diversions of Guadalupe River water allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resulted in an increased salinity of water around the Aransas refuge. Tom Stehn, former U.S. Whooping Crane Coordinator contends that the salinity changes devastated the local population of blue crabs and led to the death of at least 23 whooping cranes during the winter of 2008–09.

Dr. Paul A Johnsgard, professor emeritus University of Nebraska-Lincoln wrote an in-depth article titled, “Aransas National Wildlife Refuge: The Whooping Crane’s Vulnerable Winter Retreat. He wrote: “Given the recent warming and drying climate trend in the Great Plains, and consequent increased losses of wetlands, the future of the Wood Buffalo Park–Aransas flock of whooping cranes is still by no means secure. However, without the establishment of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge at a critical time, the species would almost certainly have been added to the dismal list of twentieth-century North American bird extinctions including the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, and Eskimo curlew.”

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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Whooping Crane Conservation topic for Audubon Meeting

Whooper adult and juvenile amazed

Friends of the Wild Whoopers member, Chester McConnell will present a program on “Whooping Cranes Conservation Efforts” at the Mobile Bay Audubon Society meeting according to Gaye Lindsey (Audubon birding coordinator). McConnell explained that his presentation will focus on management efforts for the wild whooping crane flock that migrates between Aransas Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo Park nesting grounds in Canada.

In addition he will discuss the two experimental flocks in the eastern U.S.   Operation Migration’s ultra-lite plane led whooping cranes fly through the entire length of Alabama on their migration path from Wisconsin to Florida. Many citizens turn out along the migration corridor to observe this most interesting effort.

Threats to the whooping crane programs including oil spills and wind energy projects will also be described.

McConnell said, “The last wild whooping cranes to be recorded in Alabama was on Dauphin Island and Prattville during November 1899 but many people continue to be interested in these beautiful  endangered birds.” Whooping cranes are the largest birds in North America and stand 5 feet tall and have wing spans of 7 feet.

Audubon’s meeting will be at Alabama’s 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center , Spanish Fort, Alabama on Tuesday, May 13 starting at 7:00 p.m. Ms. Lindsey explained that this will be an excellent presentation which is open to the public.

To learn more about Friends of The Wild Whoopers organization click on: FOTWW

***** FOTWW’s mission is to protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population
of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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High Hopes For Louisiana Whooping Crane Flock

By – Friends of the Wild Whoopers

There are a number of success stories on species recovery associated with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and in February 2011 they added one more. The department initiated a whooping crane re-population project that has been as challenging as any previous effort. Finally the project to reintroduce a whooping crane flock is experiencing some hoped for success.

A pair of the reintroduced whooping cranes has produced two eggs in the wilds of Louisiana for the first time in 70 years, the state LDWF announced on April 15. LDWF Secretary Robert Barham told the audience at the 13th North American Crane Workshop in Lafayette about the important occurrence in the reintroduction of the endangered birds to the wild.

Whooping crane eggs on nest causes high hopes for LDWF.

A pair of whooping cranes has produced 2 eggs in the wilds of Louisiana for the first time in 70 years. Credit – Michael Seymour/LDWF

Once widespread, the whooping crane population had plummeted to a historic low of just 15 known individuals in 1940-41. The decline was mostly due to hunting and the conversion of wetland habitat into agricultural fields. “This is the first time that a whooping crane pair has produced eggs in the wild in over 70 years on the Louisiana landscape,” Barham said.

The LDWF has been releasing  whooping cranes into the wild in the White Lake area since 2011 in an experimental project. Since then 50 of the whoopers have been released, and 30 have survived. Twenty of the birds have died due to predation or natural health problems while 5 have been killed or wounded in shooting incidents.

For Louisianans, the sight of a whooping crane in the wild has been only a distant memory. The last record of the species in Louisiana dates back to 1950, when the last surviving whooping crane was removed from Vermilion Parish property that is now part of LDWF’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Now there is much hope for a restored flock.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) believes that Louisiana may have the most favorable opportunity to reestablish a new population of whooping cranes. Why? Whooping cranes need wetlands. Wetlands make up most of the only remaining wild whooping crane’s nesting habitat in Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada and most of their winter habitat at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Coastal Louisiana embraces one of the most wetland-rich regions of the world, with 2.5 million acres of marshes (fresh, brackish, and saline) and 637,400 acres of forested wetlands. It contains about 40 percent of the coastal marshes in the coterminous United States. So, Louisiana has the necessary habitat which is a most important need for whoopers. FOTWW hopes for the best in Louisiana.

Historically, both resident and migratory populations of whooping cranes were present in Louisiana through the early 1940s. The massive birds inhabited the marshes and ridges of the state’s southwest Chenier Coastal Plain, as well as the uplands of prairie terrace habitat to the north. According to Dr. Gay Gomez, professor of geography at McNeese State University and Louisiana whooping crane historian, “Records from the 1890s indicated ‘large numbers’ of both whooping cranes and sandhill cranes on wet prairies year round.”

The Louisiana whoopers are not the only cranes in the wild. A self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Like those in an eastern migratory population, the Aransas group remains vulnerable to extinction from continued loss of habitat and catastrophes, either natural or man-made.

Multiple efforts are underway to reduce these risks and bring this magnificent bird further along its path to recovery. This includes increasing populations in the wild, ongoing efforts to establish a migratory population in the eastern United States and establishing a resident (non-migratory) population in Louisiana. The White Lake marshes and vast surrounding coastal marshes of southwest Louisiana was a positive factor in the decision making process that led to the experimental population approval.

The original wild Louisiana whooping crane population did not withstand the pressure of human encroachment, conversion of nesting habitat to agricultural acreage, hunting, and specimen collection, which also occurred across North America. Dr. Gomez’s research indicates “In May of 1939, biologist John Lynch reported 13 whooping cranes north of White Lake and that in August 1940, flood waters associated with a hurricane scattered the resident White Lake population of cranes and only six of the 13 cranes returned. By 1947, only one crane remained at White lake and in March of 1950, the last crane in Louisiana was captured and relocated to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.”

The goal of the LDWF’s reintroduction project is to establish a self-sustaining whooping crane population on and around White Lake, which contains over 70,000 acres of freshwater marsh. A self-sustaining population is defined as a flock of 130 individuals with 30 nesting pairs, surviving for a 10-year period without any additional restocking.

Whooping cranes do not generally nest until 3-5 years of age, so the nesting success of the Louisiana flock is now entering that time period. The long-term goal of this reintroduction is to move whooping cranes from an endangered species status to threatened status.


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Experts Fear Impacts of Oil Cleanup on Texas Gulf Coast

Experts Fear Impacts of Oil Cleanup on Texas Gulf Coast|
April 11, 2014 | 9:45 AM

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Workers scraping oil-drenched sand from the beaches of Matagorda Island.

MATAGORDA ISLAND, TX — Recovery efforts continue weeks after a barge accident in the Houston Ship Channel dumped tens of thousands of barrels of oil into Galveston Bay. That oil kills wildlife and damages the environment. But some are worried the cleanup itself could also disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is that threat more apparent than in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Every morning this week, hundreds of workers have gone out to Matagorda Island, a part of that refuge, to try to remove the oil. On a recent tour organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the response team appeared to work with great care, gingerly scraping thin layers of oil-drenched sand away with shovels, then depositing it into nearby excavators for delivery into larger dump trucks. Over ten tons of sand has been removed so far.

Randal Ogrydziak, the U.S. Coast Guard captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill response, likens the painstaking process to shoveling a gravel driveway after a snow storm.

“You can think of it as the snow is the oil — not that thick — the driveway is the good sand underneath, and you just want to take bad stuff and get rid of that, and leave the good sand,” Ogrydziak says. “We don’t want to dig up the whole beach here. That’s not what we want to do.”

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: Mose Buchele ~ Randal Ogrydziak, the US Coast Guard Captain who is one of the coordinators of the spill.

Ogrydziak’s concern that the cleanup could do “more damage than the oil” is not limited to the sand. This thin barrier island, like the rest of the National Wildlife Refuge, is not meant for people. Now it’s home to ATVs, bobcat excavators, dump trucks, helicopters, and hundreds of response personnel. They – and the oil – all arrived right as migratory animals are passing through on their annual trip.

“The oil spill could not have happened at a worse time,” says Nancy Brown, a spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “You have these birds that have migrated literally across the Gulf of Mexico. They arrive here, they are exhausted, [and] all they want to do is get something to eat, get something to drink, rest, and then continue their migration.”

But Brown says if they’re constantly being disturbed by the cleanup activity, “they’re not only not eating, they’re wasting calories trying to get away.”

They can also be spooked from their nests by the activity, leaving eggs and young animals vulnerable to predators. Workers here say they’re doing their best by limiting trips to and from the island, being careful with vehicles, and enforcing a “flight ceiling” on helicopters so they don’t disturb the birds.

Oil cleanup itself could disturb the ecosystem along the Texas Gulf Coast. Nowhere is threat more apparent than at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: Mose Buchele ~ After the oil was pushed ashore, it was covered by a layer of sand, making it more difficult to detect.

Of particular concern is the endangered whooping crane. This refuge is home to the only naturally-occurring flock of those birds in the world. Around 300 whooping cranes winter here, and many have not yet left for their summer grounds in Canada.

Right as the cranes leave, the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle arrives. That’s also an endangered species. It lays its eggs on the same beaches – now oily beaches – where the response crews are working with excavators and dump trucks to remove the oil.

Jeremy Edwardson, a Fish and Wildlife Biologist, says it will be difficult to measure the full impact of the spill and the recovery efforts.

“I don’t think we’ll ever understand it,” says Edwardson. “There’s some stuff to document and it’s easy to document. But there’s also the potential for oil to be here for years, so it’s possibly going to be an ongoing response.”

Source: StateImpact Texas  ~ A reporting project of  NPR member stations



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