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.
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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