Final, Final Thoughts Dec.31,2018 Operation Migration resigned from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) on August 17, 2018 and as of December 31, the organization will cease to exist. Since our resignation announcement, we have had no official response from our WCEP partners or even an acknowledgement that our letter was received. We are writing this open communication to our supporters, the Recovery Team members and the WCEP partners to provide a better understanding of the logic behind our resignation and to quell some of the rumors that have arisen. Our resignation was motivated, in part, by the current Recovery Team plan for the Eastern Migratory Population. Although we are critical of that management strategy, we recognize it was made with good intentions and with the best interest of the birds in mind. Because we do not agree with the plan does not mean we are critical of the planners. Each of you brings unique talents and experience to the cause and we respect the knowledge and integrity of all of the members. The decision to release only parent-reared Whooping crane chicks within the EMP was based on low reproduction in and around the Necedah NWR. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2015 Vision Document blamed that low prolificacy on the shortcomings of costume-rearing methods; specifically, those employed by Operation Migration. It was hypothesized that “artificiality” of the ultralight-led (UL) method produced inattentive parents and caused the high chick mortality at Necedah. Other than the low productivity numbers, that theory was not supported by research that was shared with the partnership. Ironically, similar costume-rearing strategies appear to be working well in Louisiana. Rumor one: Operation Migration wanted to bring back the aircraft-led release method, to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. Our position: OM believes that the UL program was effective however, we eventually agreed that it was no longer required to achieve a self-sustaining EMP. After the cross-imprinting problems at Grays Lake, the Recovery Team originally opposed an eastern reintroduction if it depended solely on chance or wild Sandhill cranes to instill proper migration behavior. The UL method solved that problem making the EMP possible, both biologically and politically, and along the way it presented the conservation of Whooping cranes to a global audience. Now there is a core population migrating appropriately and the UL method has served its function. With sufficient allocations and less restrictive release strategies, we believe the EMP can become self-sustaining. We have petitioned for both of those initiatives but our appeals were rejected. The current release strategy is limited by the number of chicks that can be parent-reared in the captive breeding centers and by the number of adult pairs within the EMP that could act as surrogates in the fall when the chicks are released. WCEP is also constrained by the disproportionate chick allocation between the EMP and the Louisiana Non-migratory Population. Rumor two: Operation Migration is not thinking of the big picture. It is concerned only with the EMP and not the overall recovery of the species and is therefore opposed to the Louisiana Non-Migratory Population. Our position: The Louisiana project has been a brilliant success so far with five fledged chicks in only year eight, and some to record-young parents. The project leaders have integrated Whooping cranes into the local farming culture and made them a source of pride throughout the state. And they did it without creating a complex infrastructure like WCEP. Their work is extremely promising and we can understand why the Recovery Team would want to concentrate resources there. However, too much concentration will compromise all the effort it took to build the EMP to its current size. If egg allocations to the EMP remain imbalanced until 2021, when the current Recovery Team strategy expires, natural attrition will undoubtedly reduce the number of EMP breeders that have also fledged a record five chicks in 2018. Rumor three: Operation Migration does not believe the EMP can be successful but the five chicks that fledged in 2018 demonstrate that they are mistaken. Our position: Seventy percent of the parents of those five fledged chicks were released using the Ultralight method. Those successes are an indication that the costume-reared cranes released many years ago are finally learning how to deal with the challenges at Necedah. Their success has little to do with the current parent-rearing strategy. The results of this latest experiment will only be revealed a few years from now, if ever. With continued low allocations, by that time natural attrition will have decreased the number of adult cranes in the EMP, even among the breeders that produced those five chicks and much of the work WCEP did will have been lost. It is also worth noting that parent-rearing has been tested before, even with a crane species, but it failed to significantly increase productivity. Additionally, survival rates are lower among parent-reared juveniles that are released just before their first migration, with no wild experience, and months before they would normally be separated from their parents. Add this to the lower allocations planned until 2021 and the sample size will assuredly be too small for any confidence in the results. Finally, the EMP contains such a diverse mix of release strategies, from wild-hatched chicks to DAR and UL reared cranes, that properly evaluating the potential of a parent-reared strategy within that amalgam — will be inconclusive. If a parent-reared crane survives for five years and breeds with a DAR or a UL adult, how can their success or failure be attributed to the rearing technique of one or the other? In summary, there is no indication that parent-rearing has worked in the past, too few birds are being released to make it work now and there is likely no way to evaluate it in the future. Even as a learning opportunity, it has little merit. And while this experiment is underway, attrition will take a severe toll on the population it took WCEP so much time and money to establish. In-The-Field Parent Rearing: In an attempt to more closely replicate the natural process, Operation Migration proposed raising parent-reared chicks in the field rather than at one of the captive centers. We requested that two to four parent-reared chicks be relocated to White River Marsh in the spring at 40 days of age or younger. They would have been housed in our isolated pens deep in the marsh. A non-breeding pair of captive cranes, not yet reallocated from the Patuxent flock, could have acted as alloparents. The chicks would have been slowly introduced to those adults in divided pens that provided upland foraging areas and wetland roosting sites all within an isolated, top-netted enclosure that was monitored by a live, 24 hour camera. They would have learned to forage for natural foods provided within that compound and been released daily for flight practice. Rather than learning to fly in small pens at the breeding centers, they would fledge naturally and become familiar with the wetlands that would eventually become their summer range. In addition, they would have opportunities to interact with the wild Whooping cranes that use the same habitat. This proposal would have followed the directives of the Recovery Team and produced parent-reared chicks that were already acclimated to the introduction site. They would have been strong flyers by migration time and maybe even familiar with adult con-specifics that could guide them south. This rearing strategy would have augmented the number of parent-reared cranes released into the EMP and relieved some of the pressure on the captive breeding centers that would otherwise be responsible for raising PR chicks until the fall when they are normally shipped to Wisconsin. We offered to cover the cost of relocation and all the summer expenses including the fall tracking, however, that proposal was rejected. The only justification provided was that reassigning two captive, non-breeding cranes from the Patuxent flock put too much pressure on the team responsible for their distribution. We were also told that it seemed like “too much of a panic” to organize before the season began. That meeting took place in January 2018. Neither the alloparents nor the chicks were needed until that June. Sandhill cranes as an analogue species: Although Sandhill cranes generally use different habitat than Whooping cranes, within the EMP, they are regularly seen foraging in upland areas together and roosting in the same wetlands. Because of the cryptic coloration of one species but not the other, they employ different defense strategies but they are both susceptible to the same predators. The similarities are close enough that Sandhill cranes provide a good analogue species to evaluate the potential of habitat for a Whooping crane reintroduction. Ten years after the first indications of low recruitment at Necedah, WCEP was finally allowed to evaluate the fecundity of Sandhill cranes. The 2017 results demonstrate that natural occurring Sandhills had a success rate similar to the reintroduced Whooping cranes. With late spring snow, followed by flooding, 2018 may have been an anomalous breeding season however, forty-seven Sandhill chicks were radio tagged at Necedah but only four survived to fledge. By comparison, at White River Marsh, twenty-two chicks were tagged and eighteen fledged. Based on observations and tests with avian predators, the researchers also found that the Whooping cranes at Necedah appear to defend their offspring just as aggressively and persistently as the wild Sandhill cranes. These study results suggest that the problem of high chick mortality has more to do with environmental issues at Necedah than it does with rearing strategy. However, when Operation Migration proposed augmenting the number of chicks released into the EMP by raising a cohort of costume-reared Whooping cranes at White River Marsh during the 2018 season, that request was denied by the Recovery Team Coordinator without explanation other than a directive to follow the existing strategy. Rumor four: Operation Migration is upset with WCEP and left the partnership as a self-serving display of defiance. Our position: When WCEP was established, the partners collectively developed the release strategies and requested approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Recovery Team, which was generally granted. Now the Service has pulled rank and dictates to WCEP, assigning release techniques and limiting allocations, often without providing research to support those directives or allowing team discussions. In Louisiana, costume-rearing is used successfully and it is preferred over parent-rearing however those requests are approved by the Service and the Recovery Team. For almost ten years, little was done by the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the cause of high chick mortality at Necedah while the population hovered around 100 individuals. Nor has there ever been discussions about possible black fly suppression as promised in the 2015 FWS Vision Document. Instead, our aircraft-led method was repeatedly criticized for being too expensive, despite self-funding, plus we were blamed for the low reproduction at Necedah and the failure of the project. When the Partnership was limited to the parent-reared technique and lower allocations, Operation Migration opposed those decisions. However, our concerns were not addressed, our offers to raise additional chicks were rejected and no reasonable justification was provided. Throughout this process, our complaint was not with WCEP but with the way the Service was dictating to the Partnership, despite the superior Whooping crane experience of the latter. Our parting message was intended to support WCEP and to protect the EMP. For many years, access was restricted to the Necedah Refuge so WCEP was not able to properly investigate the causes of chick mortality or the productivity of Sandhill cranes for comparative analysis. That isolationism began with the unworkable flight restrictions on chick training imposed by the Refuge during our last year at Necedah. Further evidence is the almost complete lack of Whooping crane displays or education materials in the new visitor’s center — or on the Refuge webpage. Despite denials, the visitor’s center was created, in part, as a result of the Whooping crane project yet there remains almost no recognition of one of the most high-profile, wildlife projects ever to occur in the U.S. This is not a campaign for credit of WCEP’s actions on the refuge but an indication of the Service’s regard for the EMP, the respect it has for its partners or the value of their investment. Thousands of people supported the efforts of WCEP to reintroduce Whooping cranes and millions followed the progress. The Necedah Refuge was the center of that project however, recognition for those accomplishments by the Service is conspicuously absent. In the beginning, WCEP estimated that this reintroduction costs the partners $1.6 million dollars per year. Almost two-thirds of that was contributed by ICF and Operation Migration. Experimenting with the EMP by limiting allocations and mandating restrictive release strategies for the next three years while the population continues to languish, is not good stewardship of WCEP’s investment. Rumor five: OM lost a significant portion of its funding and could no longer afford to participate. Now they blame the partnership for their demise: Our position: Just like any other partner, our funding depended on having a viable role to play within WCEP. At the annual face-to-face WCEP meeting in 2016 when the UL method was ended, the Guidance Team proposed that OM’s new role would be tracking the EMP cranes. We had the expertise, the equipment and the manpower to provide that service, however that role was provided by ICF. Our proposal to augment releases into the EMP by raising a costume reared cohort was rejected with no rationale other than to follow the Recovery Team’s Egg Allocation directive. Our idea of in-the-field parent-rearing was also vetoed without justification. The only viable Whooping crane role left for us would have been to assist in monitoring the four parent-reared chicks that were released in the fall of 2018. For many years Operation Migration presented our social media audience with a supportive and positive version of the decisions made by WCEP. When the Fish and Wildlife Service exercised its authority over the Partnership and publicly blamed Operation Migration for the failure of the EMP, we were forced to defend our methods and our contribution, but we eventually agreed to accept that decision and presented it in a positive light to our supporters. As the success of the EMP became increasingly compromised by restrictive release strategies and limited allocations, we campaigned for more chicks and proposed alternative methods. Those offers were rejected and if history is any guide, we suspect the Sandhill research we funded at Necedah and White River will also be ignored. In an attempt to be good partners we did not share those conflicts with our audience but there are a hundred stories to tell like our unceremonious ejection from the Necedah Refuge and the purging of all things WCEP. We were told that there was no room on the 44,000-acre refuge for the WCEP donor-recognition board. At the opening of the Whooping crane inspired Necedah visitor’s center, no one from OM was invited. During the last WCEP face-to-face meeting we were told that the Recovery Team was not responsible for the welfare of one of the WCEP partners. We have heard the same mantra from the Fish and Wildlife Service many times and it is a valid assertion. But if Operation Migration had taken the same stance when we provided the lion’s share of the funding, labor, and expertise to fulfill the mandate of the Recovery Team and the Fish and Wildlife Service, there wouldn’t be an Eastern Migration Population today. In the end, we had hoped that our departure would prompt the other partners to question the current management strategies and their implications to the original goal. The EMP has the potential to succeed and the work now being done at Necedah to determine the cause of low productivity and to manage for Whooping cranes is very encouraging. The five fledged chicks in 2018 are also promising and we hope that milestone prompts the Service to reconsider the viability of the EMP and concentrate more on its potential success.