Although Whooping cranes are critically endangered, that status does not apply to the birds that WCEP is introducing into the Eastern Flyway. The Endangered Species Act protects the birds, and it also applies to the habitat they use. If the birds wintered or nested in private wetland, there are serious implications for the owners. Naturally that led to some concerns when this project was first proposed.
Luckily there is a provision within the Act that allows for an experimental, non-essential designation. These birds are considered experimental and not critical to the survival of the species so they have the status of “threatened” which relieved a lot of tension for everyone involved. That agreement was signed by seven states along the migration route, thirteen more into which the birds may disperse, as well as two Canadian Provinces. However, if they wander out of that range, it becomes a problem so they must be permanently marked with leg bands. In addition, they need to be fitted with better radios than the snap on type they wear during the migration, and a few get satellite transmitters called PTT’s.
In order to fit the bands the birds have to be held, and that gives the Health Team the opportunity to examine them prior to their release. Dr Glenn Olsen came down from the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland to conduct the health exam. He was accompanied by Brian Clauss who is particularly good at holding the birds still while all this takes place. Having done that myself, I can tell you it’s not like holding your dog while the vet administers a shot. It takes skill and balance and just the right pressure in just the right area to avoid injury.
Eva Szyszkoski from ICF who leads the WCEP Tracking Team came up from Florida to apply the bands which are glued on in several stages so they will never come off. Also two staff members from Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida where the birds were supposed to winter came up to help. Normally after being handled, the birds are wary of anyone dressed in a costume, but according to Brooke, it all went very smoothly and the birds were taking treats from him after only a few hours.
Despite the talent and experience that assembled at Wheeler NWR to ensure the safety of these birds, to them it was nothing more than an indignity and some extra hardware to carry.