The world's most endangered crane would take to the skies over the eastern United States under a plan proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce a wild population of whooping cranes that would migrate annually between Wisconsin and Florida.
Working in partnership with a variety of state wildlife agencies, conservation groups and other private organizations, the Service is considering using ultralight aircraft to teach young whoopers the migration route, possibly as early as this fall. The reintroduction is being proposed as part of an ongoing recovery effort for the highly imperiled species, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today numbers only about 250 birds in the wild. The service published a proposed rule and announced the availability of a draft environmental assessment in today's Federal Register which evaluates three alternatives for establishing a new migratory population of whooping cranes. "The proposed reintroduction is a perfect example of how the Federal government can work in partnership with the private sector, States and local landowners, to recover endangered species," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "The Service's collaborative approach has brought people together and built a high level of trust and cooperation in this effort." "The continent's only migratory population of whooping cranes winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast and is vulnerable to a catastrophic event such as a major hurricane," Norton explained. "This reintroduction would not only restore the whooper to part of its historic range but also provide another geographically distinct migratory population." To evaluate the potential for using an ultralight aircraft to lead cranes for the reintroduction, biologists successfully reared 11 sandhill cranes and led them on the 1,250-mile migration between Wisconsin and Florida in November 2000. If the proposed rule and draft EA are finalized and approved by the Service and its state partners, an experimental flock of young whooping cranes could be reared and trained using methods developed and refined during the sandhill migration experiment. The birds would leave from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and fly to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida, following the route of the sandhill crane migration. The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team, which includes a wide range of government and private organizations including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, voted in January to recommend to the Service that ultralight aircraft be used to train and lead an experimental flock of young whooping cranes. "After years of hard work with the States and other partners, it is very exciting to announce our proposal to bring this great bird back to its historic eastern range in a manner that emphasizes voluntary cooperation among a host of partners," said Marshall Jones, the Service's acting director. "We will continue to work with State wildlife agencies, Flyway Councils and the public to ensure that all voices are heard and concerns addressed as this project is developed." Jones noted the prominent role that the National Wildlife Refuge System has played in the whooping crane recovery effort, and the pivotal part it will play in the proposed reintroduction. Two national wildlife refuges, Necedah NWR and Chassahowitzka NWR, will provide the nesting area and winter home, respectively, of the reintroduced migratory flock. In addition, Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast provides the principal wintering habitat for the hemisphere's only migratory population. Refuges along the western migration route provide essential stopover habitat for the whooping cranes on their annual migrations between Aransas and breeding and summering habitat in Canada; refuges in the East are expected to fill the same role if an eastern migratory flock is established. "The recovery of the whooping crane, as well as the continued health of many other migratory bird populations, would not be possible without the habitat provided by our national wildlife refuges, many of which were established for the express purpose of enhancing migratory birds," Jones said. The Service's preferred alternative would designate the reintroduced population of whooping cranes as a nonessential experimental population (NEP) under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. This designation and its implementing regulation will provide certainty that the project will not adversely affect ongoing human activities, such as outdoor recreation, agriculture and other land management practices. The designation would mean that Federal, state, tribal, or private actions that could result in the death of or injury to a whooping crane in the course of otherwise lawful activities would not be affected by the proposed reintroduction. The intentional killing or harm of any NEP-designated whooping crane would still be a violation of Federal law punishable under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The area proposed for NEP designation includes the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. These states are within the known or suspected historic range of whooping cranes. However, it is expected that the birds will stay primarily in the migratory route between Wisconsin and Florida. Public hearings will be held on the proposal in four different locations along the proposed migration corridor, including the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee, and Florida. The specific dates and locations of the public hearings may be found in today's Federal Register. The whooping crane, named for its loud and penetrating mating call, is one of America's best known and rarest endangered species. This wetland-dwelling species lives and breeds in extensive wetlands, where it feeds upon crabs, clams, frogs, and other aquatic organisms. Whooping cranes stand 5 feet tall and are pure white in color with black wing tips and a red crown. Never very numerous, whooping cranes were thought to number historically between 700 and 1,400 in North America, before unregulated hunting and habitat destruction caused the population to plummet to a low of about 21 birds in 1941. There are currently 187 birds in the only natural remaining wild flock, which breeds in Canada and winters on the Texas gulf coast, at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. A second non-migratory flock lives year round in central Florida, as part of a separate and ongoing reintroduction effort. Because of the huge scope and complexity of the project, which crosses numerous state lines and other lines of jurisdiction, a coalition of multiple government agencies and nonprofit organizations formed the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). Founding members include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Operation Migration Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, International Crane Foundation, USGS/Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the Whooping Crane Recovery Team. Many other flyway States, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and supported WCEP