Wild Whooping Crane population deserves more attention

by Chester McConnell, Friends of the Wild Whoopers                      

Port Aransas was a marsh habitat in the past. Whooping Crane Population
Port Aransas was a marsh habitat in the past.

There is only one wild, self-sustaining Whooping Crane population on earth and it deserves much more attention. This population has slowly increased over the past 60 years while many of their habitats have been destroyed or degraded. Also due to the population increase the Whoopers have had to expand their wintering range to private lands miles away from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) maintains that it is vital to acquire key Whooping Crane habitats along the migration flyway from Saskatchewan, Canada, to Texas with special emphasis in the vicinity of ANWR.

Whoopers Cranes and Sandhill cranes pn private land. Whooping Crane Population
Whoopers Cranes and Sandhill cranes on private land.   photo by-Peggy-Diaz

This self-sustaining population of birds is known as the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population because of the winter and summer habitats where they live. During spring and summer months this population nests and rears its chicks in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). A few weeks after the chicks fledge, they migrate with their parents 2,500 miles to ANWR on the coast of Texas where they spend the winter. This has been their routine for centuries. 

Whooping Cranes have faced many adversities and almost became extinct during the 1940s. Only 16 of these birds remained in 1941. They had been hunted by Indians and European settlers but their biggest problem was widespread drainage of their wetland habitats by U.S. government agencies on behalf of private agriculture interests. Millions of acres of wetlands were drained and virtually all traditional nesting habitats were destroyed except for those in WBNP.

Private conservation organizations and government officials finally recognized the endangered Whooping Cranes plight in the 1940s and initiated efforts to protect and manage the birds. As a result the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population slowly increased over the following 60 years. Today there are approximately 300+ Whooping Cranes in this population.

Now that the Whooping Cranes have increased in numbers they are facing additional problems. They are running out of secure wintering habitats on the Texas coast and along their migration route. Presently only approximately half of their winter habitat is within the safeguarded areas of the ANWR complex. And land development, plus increased land use intensity along the migration route is reducing even more wetland habitats. 

Due to their natural traits, including food needs, Whooping Crane pairs and their current year chicks defend an area averaging about 300 acres from other Whoopers. Because of their needs for large acreages, suitable habitat for the cranes has been taken up on the ANWR. Now, roughly half of the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population currently uses private lands as their winter habitats. This is a major concern for Whooping Crane managers and the private conservation groups who support them.

Felipe Chavez-Ramirez, PhD, Director, Conservation Programs, Gulf Coast Bird Observatory recently described the habitat problems (https://friendsofthewildwhoopers.org/private-lands-important-whooping-crane-wintering-along-texas-coast/ ).  He explained that members of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team have identified winter habitat as the limiting factor to increasing the population of this wild, migratory species. He also revealed that a coalition of organizations and agencies developed a Conservation Action Plan that highlights measures to ensure protection of all current and future potential Whooping Crane wintering habitats as a high priority.

Dr. Chavez-Ramirez elaborated that: “Since more than half of the Whooping Crane population winters on private lands – and in the future the percentage is likely to increase, finding mechanism to ensure the integrity of those lands as Whooping Crane habitat is a high priority. A recent evaluation conducted in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation and Harte Research Institute, shows that potential high quality habitat along the coast in Aransas, San Antonio, and Matagorda Bay systems will be a smaller proportion of potential territories within protected areas in the future. As little as 26% of all potential suitable winter habitat for Whooping Cranes will be within a protected area in the mentioned bay systems.”

With the growing shortage of suitable habitat for the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population are there other opportunities to establish additional Whooping Crane populations? Since the 1970’s those interested in Whooping Cranes have sought additional remedies to reduce some of the threats. Several different research projects have sought to establish new populations of Whooping Cranes in different locations of the U.S.

According to the International Whooping Crane Recovery Plan one of the first efforts was the Rocky Mountain-Grays Lake project. This project tried cross-fostering whooping cranes to Sandhill Crane foster parents. From 1975 through 1988 (13 years), 216 whooping crane eggs were transferred to Grays Lake from WBNP, and 73 from Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and placed under pairs of Sandhill Cranes. The Whooper chicks hatched and adapted to dietary and habitat differences and, in subsequent years, repeated the migration pattern of their foster parents. Unfortunately, the Whooping Cranes that were reared by the Sandhill Cranes attempted to breed only with other Sandhills and the project ended in failure. The cross-fostered population in the Rockies declined to a single survivor in year 2000 along with one crane from the ultralight experiment. Both were dead by spring 2002.

A second effort intended to establish a non-migratory population of Whooping Cranes in Florida. From 1993 to 2004 (11 years), biologists released 289 captive-raised, non-migratory Whooping Cranes in central Florida. The last releases took place in winter of 2004-2005.  Scientists decided to stop releasing cranes into the non-migratory flock for a variety of reasons, including problems with survival and reproduction, both of which have been complicated by drought. At this time, the flock size is estimated less than 14; however, only 8 birds (3 males and 5 females) were reported by the public in 2014.

A third effort is the eastern migratory population (EMP) of Whooping Cranes that was begun in 2000. The goal is to establish a migratory, self-sustaining population in eastern North America.

The initial goal was to establish a minimum of 120 adults consisting of at least 30 breeding pairs. Since the initiation of this project, 228 captive reared whooping cranes have been released into the wild, with approximately half of those surviving to date. Maximum size of the eastern migratory population at the end of the report period (May 4, 2015) was 95 birds (53 males, 42 females).  Long-term whooping crane survival in the EMP is estimated at 44.6%. As of December 2012, there had been 121 recorded mortalities. Milestones in this reintroduction effort include the establishment of two nests in 2005 and the first fledged chick in 2006. Since 2006, only 4 additional chicks have been fledged in the wild (latest data available to me). Project leaders believe survival of released whooping cranes has been acceptable, but successful reproduction of released cranes has been too low for the flock to be considered self-sustaining. 

Poor parenting skills by adult captive reared whooping cranes appear to be a major cause of inadequate reproduction in the EMP. Some have suggested obtaining eggs from the Wood Buffalo wild population to be hatched in incubators and the fledglings released into the wild. The hope is that the released fledglings would follow adult Whoopers who themselves were hatched in incubators. Yet, others insist that poor parents would be unsuccessful no matter the source of the eggs. Based on recent experiences, it seems obvious that poor parenting is the problem and not the eggs.

A fourth effort intends to establish another non-migratory population of Whooping Cranes in Louisiana’s White Lake area. It is believed that these released Whooping Cranes would have a much better chance in the1.3 million acres of marsh, open water, and Chenier habitat in southwestern coastal Louisiana.  The recovery plan goal is for Louisiana to reach a subpopulation of 25-30 productive pairs, which translates to about 130 cranes in Louisiana. This process could take 15 to 20 years.  Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Whooping Crane reintroduction program has released cranes into the wild from White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area each year since 2011. 64 Whooping Cranes have been released in Louisiana as of December 4, 2014. 40 of those birds have survived, including the 14 released in 2014.

The several projects to establish new populations have all been worthy efforts. Yet, two projects have been unsuccessful and two are continuing in the experimental stage. Hopefully the WCEP migratory projects and the Louisiana non-migratory project will be successful because three populations are needed in accordance with the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan.

To date none of the experimental projects designed to establish new Whooping Crane populations has registered substantial positive results. In the meantime the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population continues to increase. FOTWW believes insufficient attention is being directed to the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population. This self-sustaining population provides the best opportunity to increase Whooping Crane numbers while reducing threats to the population. The major problem is that the birds currently need many more acres of secure winter habitat. Importantly, the Aransas/Wood Buffalo population of Whooping Cranes is capable of taking care of itself if they have ample suitable habitat.

FOTWW’s Whooping Crane Science Advisor Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez recently wrote: “The importance of protecting actual and potential wild Whooping Crane wintering grounds has taken greater significance in recent years as attempts to establish reintroduced populations have not succeeded in establishing self- sustaining populations in other areas. Under the conditions outlined in the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan for potential down listing is that if no self-sustaining reintroduced populations have been established then at least 250 breeding pairs (1,000 individuals) should be in the wild population. This means that we need to ensure that at least there is sufficient acres to support 250 breeding pairs on the Texas coasts.” 

An old song lyrics says, “You’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya…”.  In reality it’s no difference with Whooping Cranes populations. The only wild self-sustaining population of Whooping Cranes on earth deserved much more attention.

friendsofthewildwhoopers.org logo

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****
Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.