End of Ultralight-guided Migration

That’s all she wrote…

There are a number of inhibitors to a successful reintroduction of Whooping cranes. Firstly, you need a method of teaching them migration. Then you must get enough of them onto the landscape so a high percentage will survive to reach breeding age. You must ensure they exhibit wild behavior and mate with their own kind.

Operation Migration team has been very successful in achieving those goals. In fact, the Ultralight led method we pioneered comes closer than any other technique yet developed. It provides the highest survival rate, greater pairing and the only fledged chicks produced in the Eastern Migratory Population.

Despite those achievements, you can only judge the success of a wildlife reintroduction by fecundity or the ability for the population to produce young and grow to a self-sustaining level.  Of the 240 plus birds released into the EMP, only ten chicks have survived to fledge. We have taken pride in the fact that all of those successes have been the result of UL pairs, but it’s a long ways from sustainability.

So why, despite their appropriate behavior, are the offspring our birds produce not surviving? Why, in 2015, did so many eggs hatch but only three chicks survive? Certainly habitat and the blackflies at Necedah had an effect but the blackflies are mostly gone by the time those chicks were lost. Maybe predation played a role but the more likely cause is inattentiveness of the parents. In fact, that could explain why many of those birds abandoned their nest when wild Sandhill cranes, in the same habitat, succeeded at a much higher rate. Why have all attempts to reintroduce Whooping cranes also failed due to low recruitment? Maybe here is a common thread that we have all overlooked.

There are two possibilities. The first is hand rearing. Maybe in their early development, hand raised chicks miss some behavior that only real parents can teach. All of the Whooping crane reintroduction projects have used hand or costumed reared birds and maybe we can teach them to migrate and be wild birds, but not how to be good parents.

The second unknown is captive selection. When animals are raised in captivity for multiple generations they undergo genetic changes that may weaken their ability to persist in the wild. They live on a fixed diet, they don’t fly and they are not subjected to the regular adrenalin rush of avoiding predators. With so few Whooping cranes left, each one is precious and vet teams treat them for conditions that would normally kill untreated birds in the wild. In the human population, modern medicine can cure people with susceptibilities to certain illnesses. Healthy again, they live on to produce children with the same predisposition for that illness.  Genetic changes like these have been documented in many captive animals and it is surprising how quickly it can occur.

Of these two possible inhibitors, there is only one that WCEP can address. To test captive selection you would need eggs collected from wild stock in Wood Buffalo National Park where the only surviving wild flock nests. That will be a long process involving two federal governments with the final decision in the hands of Environment Canada. We can promote that idea but it is beyond the authority of WCEP.

We can, however, answer the costume rearing question by providing adult role models or improving the parent rearing method so the sample size is large enough to evaluate.

Last August we hired Jeff Fox to fill a gap in our team. We have many multi-talented people on our staff but no accredited scientists. Jeff is a population ecologist and since he began, he has been reading research papers and using the WCEP database to see how the UL method stands up against other techniques. Unfortunately, the more he dug, the more discrepancies he found in that database.

We proposed to the Fish and Wildlife Service that no major changes in release methods should be considered until that database can be corrected and an evaluation conducted. However, even without an accurate database, it is fairly easy to see that we have released a lot of birds for only ten chicks to survive to fledging age.

In light of this information and in the days before the meeting, we were faced with a dilemma. Was it fair to the birds and our supporters to release more chicks into the Wisconsin Rectangle if costume rearing and/or captive selection is the root of the problem? Would more birds result in higher fecundity? Jeff also pointed out that since the Recovery Team approved the Louisiana Flock, we have been releasing 6 and 7 birds a year at White River compared to the 20 or so we released annually during the early years at Necedah. Complicating that is the gender bias with more males than females. He predicted that even without blackflies, there was little likelihood of successful breeding in the near future with such a small sample size.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Heather, Jo-Anne and I attended a mediated meeting with three representatives of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Billy Brooks was there from Region 2 in Florida along with Wade Harrell who is the coordinator of the Recovery Team and Pete Fasbender, lead author of the Vision Document.  It was a very candid and enlightening conversation with both sides opening up with the mediator’s help. One of the issues discussed was how the Vision Document appeared to be an attack on OM and the UL method in favor of the DAR technique. Pete agreed and took responsibility for those mistakes but he pointed out that their directive wasn’t intended to target the UL method but all releases techniques that rely heavily on hand rearing.

During the WCEP meetings, the issue of technique evaluation was not addressed. Instead we focused on ways to keep released birds with adult role models for as early, and as long as possible.

On Friday after the WCEP meetings, the Guidance Team gathered in a small boardroom at ICF. Pete Fasbender spoke first and after a long presentation about the future of the EMP and OM’s contribution, he told me that the decision was final. There will be no more aircraft led releases.

There are many roles that Operation Migration can serve within WCEP including developing a new, less invasive release technique at White River. Those options need to be explored and expanded but we are moving forward to clear this hurdle, just as we have cleared so many in the past.

It is sad to see the end of aircraft led migration. There will be many people who will be disappointed and even a few who will celebrate. But those reactions are all about people and our mantra has always been, it’s about the birds.

There are no words to express our gratitude to all of those who supported OM over the last fifteen years. We have a hundred birds in the EMP that would not be there without your efforts and support. They survive, they migrate, they pair and they are wild. Now we need to teach them to be good parents and we hope you will help us over that obstacle as you have so many times in the past.

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  1. Barbara January 30, 2016 6:38 am

    I have seen a few of the beautiful Op Migration Woopers here in Fl and find myself in tears this morning after hearing the news of the shut down. Also i feel very thankful to all of the folks who worked soo hard in this attempt. It was a heroic effort. Thank you. And take heart for the future and good luck.

  2. Laura Brown January 27, 2016 10:15 pm

    There is no way to thank you adequately for the long years of dedication and improvisation, and the many sacrifices you have made to save these amazing birds. You say it is all about the birds, and I think that in addition to the knowledge you have gained, you have educated many people to know and love these birds, which can only help in the future. After hours of watching your migrations I feel that I have flown with you and these birds. I am truly grateful. I hope that with the end of the ultralight program the effort to help these birds will not gradually dwindle away. Please let us know how we can stay involved to ensure that the efforts continue.

  3. David Baker January 26, 2016 1:29 pm

    I have started a petition with the Obama Administration to instruct the USFWS to continue ultra light guided migration until an alternative method with a proven higher level of success is developed.

    If we can reach 99,000 more signatures by Feb 25th, the administration promises to review the petition and provide a response. Please sign the petition and share either link by social media and email.



  4. Beth Chan January 26, 2016 9:11 am

    You are an inspiration, and after years of trying and never being able to get there to watch a fly over, this year I finally, after several attempts, got there to watch first one attempt that ended in a return to the pen, and then finally a gorgeous flyover of the birds. It had for many years been on a list of life dreams of mine to get to watch the ultralight led migration. It was one of the most inspiring sights to watch those them fly over, to listen and get a chance to see the latest members of a species almost lost, on their way to recovery. I had looked forward to hopefully getting to see more in the future. But I am glad I managed to get out to see them the once. The early mornings up hours before dawn and the biting cold were more than worth such a beautiful sight. You have done so much for these birds and for the species, and I wish you the best in your future efforts as well, even if that must take a different path. I will always remember that beautiful morning and seeing those birds, and the overall picture of how we as humans can make such a huge difference and can do so much to help those we share this world with.

  5. Mollie Cook January 25, 2016 9:35 am

    Words just aren’t adequate to express the sadness for this decision. OM……….your work over the past 15 years is beyond amazing & a historical marvel. You opened our eyes to these magnificent birds & what you have taught us is priceless. We’ve come to the end of “a chapter” but not an end to the mission & I know beyond a doubt that whatever road OM travels from here will be just as phenomenal as the UL program has been. We will ALL be there to support you……….Craniacs aren’t going anywhere!! Looking forward to the 2015 Class arrival at St Mark’s. Blessings to all of you.

  6. Terri (F22Raptor2) January 25, 2016 8:35 am

    I am so sorry. “At the end of the day”, all you great OM people can know that you did everything in your power to help the whooping cranes. Such a group of dedicated people I’ve rarely seen.


  7. Mary Jenkins January 25, 2016 7:18 am

    Will you end this venture at at marks refuge? If so,when? We are sad your project has ended. We wish the best for you all and the cranes. Thank you for your herculean efforts.

    • Heather Ray January 25, 2016 8:14 am

      Yes and not sure when

  8. Carey Tyler Schug January 25, 2016 2:52 am

    Did you consider taking non-migratory pairs of birds to Wisconsin and hoping they would next in the large flight cage there, and join the birds from prior years to migrate back to Florida?

  9. bonnie January 25, 2016 2:09 am

    IN the meantime while this is under consideration… how about blocking the area in such a way as no predators can get in, or killing/moving all the predators? You have to give them a chance or even the grown birds won’t live.

  10. Chris Cobb January 24, 2016 9:28 pm

    I want to add my voice to the many, many offerings of thanks to Operation Migration for the extraordinary work you have done on behalf of Whooping Cranes, and the other bird species who will benefit from the techniques you have pioneered. It has lifted my heart to follow your work for the last seven years and taught me much about the nature of patience and perseverance!

    Although I disagree with the decision to discontinue UL-led migration, I think the other side of the decision–to focus on the parenting issue–is wise. No effort to reintroduce whooping cranes has met with full success, but from each effort more has been learned that has enabled the next effort to get closer. How far the effort has come since whooper eggs were placed in Sandhill nests back in the 1970s! The parenting problem has cropped up now because there has never been a reintroduced population that has gotten far enough for the parenting issue to become evident. Now it has, and there is a great opportunity to learn better how to help the cranes. The gift of that opportunity is another reason to be grateful to OM and WCEP. The Eastern population is large enough and robust enough that I am very hopeful that it will endure while the needed lessons are learned so that it can take the next step toward becoming truly wild and self-sustaining.

    Maybe the parenting problem is the last hurdle, or maybe when that is surmounted, there will be another we don’t even guess at now.
    For human beings to manage the raising of cranes so that they are 100% wild crane and 0% human is an extraordinarily complicated challenge. It is the purest effort of giving back what human irresponsibility has taken from the world. The people of OM have my deepest admiration and will have my continuing support in their invaluable work.

  11. Carol T January 24, 2016 8:26 pm

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart..it has been an amazing journey with results that no one could have foreseen. I am sure that more will come from your amazing dedication. I have benefitted personally from your endeavors. I have had the privilege of tracking these magnificent birds at Wheeler NWR. Please continue your great work. Again thank you!

  12. Kathie Rushlow January 24, 2016 5:37 pm

    I am saddened, but appreciate Joe’s explanation. It has been an incredible journey…one which my students and myself will always remember. As we move forward, I can’t help but sense the similarity of this journey, and the journey of raising and educating Human children. Blessings to all of you…the scientists, the volunteers, the supporters, and the Whoopers!

  13. Pat January 24, 2016 3:24 pm

    I would comment, but can’t stop crying. OPCpat

  14. John Christian January 24, 2016 2:24 pm

    All of you at OM…past and present….have made a historic contribution to conservation of one of our most iconic endangered species. I am certain that your efforts will lead to the eventual recovery of this species. The personal dedication and sacrifice of so much of your personal lives for this cause have been truely humbling and admirable. I cannot tell you all how much I appreciate what you have done. I will be forever grateful.

    But this book does not have to have to end! Only this Chapter! The next Chapter is waiting to be written….. There are new roles that OM can play in the Whooping Crane reintroduction effort and other species reintroductions. We need to continue our support!!

    I will urge the FWS and the WCEP partners to work hard with OM to forge a new path for the organization so the dedication and talents of this incredible group of people will continue to be focused on the conservation of our endangered species.

    And I urge OM supporters and benefactors to keep the faith and support coming for this organization to reinvent itself in the service of conservation. It is an investment in the future that will surely pay off.

    Thank you Joe, Deke, Heather, Chris, Liz, Brooke, Richard, Paula and all the other OM personnel, past and present, from the bottom of my heart for what you have done…..and for what you will do in the future.

    And special thanks to OM family members—Diana and Alex and all the significant others and family of OM staff that have put up with their loved ones being gone from home for birthdays and holidays and special occasions in the service of conservation for the past 16 years.

    While I am also sad that this chapter is ending….the next chapter for OM is waiting to be written…..and we all need to help OM to write it……

    John Christian
    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Retired

  15. Genie Ogden January 24, 2016 1:19 pm

    I am very sorry this decision was reached. Without Operation Migration and their considerable efforts, there might not be a future for Whooping cranes and there would not be an eastern flock at all. I have seen Whooping cranes in the wild, which is truly amazing and I have the very dedicated volunteers at OM to thank for it.

  16. Laurie January 24, 2016 12:50 pm

    I just got home from errands, turned on the TV to find “Fly Away Home” just beginning. Then I checked FB and found this very, very heartbreaking post. Funny timing. I had the honor of learning of then following Operation Migration for six years or so, and in that time have seen selfless sacrifice, hard work, missed holidays, innovative thinking and just plain old fortitude go into the ongoing work of saving these majestic birds. It may not be the end of OM, but an opportunity to evolve and come up with something daring and new to further support the promise of wild, reproducing flocks. My deepest thanks to Operation Migration, each and every one of you.

  17. Chris and Charlie Linnell January 24, 2016 11:34 am

    We’ve been watching the amazing flights of Operation Migration since November 9, 2007 in Kankakee, IL. Your dedication is beyond anything we’ve experienced. We know “it’s all about the birds” but at each flyover, the observers have been inspired, awed, and brought a little closer to a miracle in Nature. Thank you for your efforts. We look forward to your next adventures.

  18. vannie zychowicz January 24, 2016 8:41 am

    Thinks you for bring the young whooper cranes in to my life for the last pas years OM I am so sad to here the worn decision is a worn decision I don’t thinks there is enough whooper cranes in Wisconsin to have a migration flouck to go south Joe And Brook did an fa ntestic job raising these young whooper up to take them to Florida for the winter months its a big joy watching them from with the tricks I will alwaye Donate to help the cause Thinks again for doing this big job of rising the young whooper cranes OM and there crew truly your Vannie zychowicz


  19. Debbie January 24, 2016 8:40 am

    I have in the recent years had the priviledge of watching a few shandhill crane families up close with their babies. What struck me is that the parents are constantly feeding the babies as they forage. constant. The babies are not pecking at the ground foraging and feeding, they are foraging following the parents around get taking things that the parent takes in their bill and presents to the baby. There is a long learning process that goes on there evidently. Do you have FORAGING hand feeding taking place? How do the babies in the wild behave as they follow their parents around? How do the parents behave, do they feed their babies constantly?

  20. Claudia Sutton January 24, 2016 7:09 am

    A meeting of USFWS and OM required a mediator. I had not realized the apparent pressure (or lack of interest) USFWS has had to terminate the UL program. So experimentally, the UL program has been successful in opening up an alternate migratory path to FL (and LA?) but the breeding, self-sustaining part of the experiment is a bust. For comparison, older re-population work with bald eagles and peregrine falcons had what level of success? California condor success rate?

  21. Robin P January 24, 2016 5:52 am

    I have but 2 two words to sincerely express my emotions.

  22. Helen Clarmo January 24, 2016 5:37 am

    So sorry that this will be the last UL led migration, I’m sure you will continue to do great work in helping these beautiful birds survive

  23. Kate Crook January 24, 2016 3:42 am

    Can hardly wait to see the next chapter of OM. Believe me, the crainiacs will follow. It’s all about the birds!!!

  24. Barbara Dobbs January 24, 2016 12:02 am

    After discovering OM last November, watching and learning about whooping cranes has brought me so much joy. Personally I am so sorry to hear this the UL migration will be ending. I have been praying every day this week for an outcome for the highest good of all concerned, including the cranes of course, and have been putting OM and USFWS on a prayer list that thousands round the world pray to. My prayer now is that all the organizations involved move past their differences and work together for the best outcome for the cranes. Thank you so much for your dedication to these magnificent birds. You are making the world a better place!

  25. tnbrdr Wanda Hawley January 23, 2016 11:14 pm

    I am sorry for the Cranes, born and unborn, OM crew ,Craniacs, and the children who have been inspired ,and the future ones who could have been inspired by this wonderful group of people who teach hope for the future and stewardship of other species and the environment they depend on. I also am sorry I will never meet the OM group again but so thankful for meeting some of them at the flyovers and glad I got to meet Sheba and her husband in Hardin Co TN at the flyover . I wouldn;t have missed this for the world. OM was a light spot in my life many times…

  26. Catherine Wohlfeil January 23, 2016 9:04 pm

    I am extremely sorry to hear that, at this time, FWS does not intend to support the continuation of ultralight led migration. I can say that I will never regret the time I spent sitting in the blind watching these small chicks eagerly and frantically run after their “surrogate mom”, the ultralight, and reach out, their wings skyward following in what could be one of the most historic and spirit filled moments in time when man once sought to reunite with the environment and reach back to save it. Let this not be the end of such endeavors, let us gather together as a nation and fulfill the promise once given us to provide fresh air, clean water, and snow white birds to fly overhead and call us to our home above.

    As to the efficacy of FWS findings, in response to its findings on captive bird genetic changes, evolution and/or intervention does not necessarily result in a weaker end; if it had, man would no longer be present on the earth and dinosaurs would rule. The ability of the chicks to learn is in no way diminished by captive breeding. The only limitation in this regard is our lack of belief that predator identification can be trained.

    What this turns upon is not only the birds, although that would be more than enough, but it also encompasses the future of the environment, the air we breathe, the green spaces of this planet, for if our outlook and focus lies only in what is economically or politically expedient, if we indeed fix our future on a fulcrum of cost, we must bear the responsibility for its end. People, old and young, rich and poor, of all backgrounds, have a need at this turning point in history for a sense of purpose and meaning. Dreams matter, ideals matter, hope matters. If this project, with its wings of man leading the wings of these angelic birds, provides the focal point for that hope, may they allow it to continue. Let this project reign as the turning point on which we can all agree. Let’s make this the fulcrum of our hope, the future our awakening, the epitome of our passage from separation to unity in the passion entailed in the grasping from the edge of extinction not only these noble birds, but also the passion and compassion once found in ourselves. May God’s strength guide you and allow you to open the bridge over which the people will find that hope.

    Or, as the Dalai Lama said, “No matter what is happening, No matter what is going on around you, Never give up.” Find a way to get the ultralights flying again. More than just the cranes need you in those skies giving the people hope.

  27. Lu Duncan Frank January 23, 2016 8:50 pm

    To Joe and the entire OM staff: thanks for all of your hard work and devotion to the beautiful whoopers that we all love and the UL program that has kept us enthralled these years…it seems like a bad dream that this program is ending. Especially short-sighted on the part of USFWS, or so it seems to me. I sincerely hope that the birds will become the number one priority of the USFWS one day. I will not say any more, but OM and all its’ supporters have done a magnificent job, and we the fans will continue to support you in any path you take! Please keep us posted on your future!

  28. Deb January 23, 2016 8:02 pm

    Thank you so very much for your hard work and dedication. I have enjoyed following the journey of these beautiful birds.

  29. Ian January 23, 2016 8:02 pm

    Brave article Joe – as someone wrote, it’s not the end; just another beginning. Let me know how we can adapt our support! Thank you for all that you/ your amazing team have given to these birds – we are richer for this unselfish act! Ian

  30. John Outland January 23, 2016 7:33 pm

    My wife and I have been following the birds for several years. We were fortunate to have Bev Paulan present a very special program about OM when she visited, Trinity Catholic School in Tallahassee, Florida where my wife taught 3rd grade. The entire school attended and I have never seen the kids so engaged, excited and interested in the efforts to restore the eastern population of the Whooping Crane.

    I truly hope that the scientist are making the right decision about cancelling the UL led reintroduction efforts.


    John Outland

  31. Ruth Kazmer January 23, 2016 7:28 pm

    So sad to see your efforts come to an early end. I have been in awe of all of you and your selfless dedication to “our” birds. Hopefully, the solutions will be found, and one day Whooping Cranes will thrive on their own. Until then, I know you will all carry on, in whatever way you can, to make this dream a reality. Best wishes to all….and thank you, thank you, thank you.

  32. Matt January 23, 2016 7:26 pm

    I have been following the whopping cranes for years and want to say how sad I am to hear about OM and crew and the decision that was made. The OM and team has done a great job increasing the population. You can’t base the decision on just the past and not include current data logically. However, I do see a major issue with predation and whooping cranes being shot. The numbers are staggering when you see it. To understand the problem with whooping cranes , one has to examine the success of the sandhill cranes. Whooping cranes are in the most remote areas possible unlike the sandhill cranes. There is great protection in larger numbers. Why do you see sometimes whooping cranes migrating with sandhills, because of protection. How can a whooping crane family raise more if the family consist of 3 in the family in the most remote area , again unlike sandhill cranes. Habitat is an issue also. The dynamics of the whooping cranes need help. As far as the parenting, that comes by design that is given to them. I will continue to pray for the OM and team and continue to support them. Thanks Matt.

  33. Sandy F (NWWISbirder) January 23, 2016 6:09 pm

    With heavy heart and blurry eyes I say “Don’t Be Sad Because It Ended, Be Happy Because It Happened”. A very BIG thank you to the OM team and others for their time, effort, and sacrifices they have made over the years. We wouldn’t have the Whooping Cranes we have now if it weren’t for the dedicated OM team! All will be greatly missed. All the best for future endeavors.


  34. Madeline January 23, 2016 5:34 pm

    Like others, I’m aching — for all of you, for the birds, and all of us. I’m also immensely grateful for all you have all accomplished. I’ve watched over the years for the highs and the lows, and I’ve been impressed how you have all managed to pick yourselves up from even the lowest of the lows, as you seem to be doing yet again. So, yes, please believe, I will continue to watch and continue to support you. Godspeed little birds and super human OM crew! Onward to Florida and onward to the next chapter of this odyssey. No dry eyes here, though.

  35. DebMV63Seattle January 23, 2016 5:27 pm

    Thank you, OM, for all your dedication. May the descendants of 15 years of effort resulting in 100 birds carry the Whooping Cranes from near extinction to a thriving population no longer reliant on human assistance. I’m fortunate and proud to have been able to witness those efforts.

  36. Margie Tomlinson January 23, 2016 4:50 pm

    Dear Joe, Thank you for your report. Am so glad that it came directly from you, even though my heart has sunk to the deepest depth. OM has given me something to live for and feel good about supporting. It has been wonderful chatting with other Craniacs sharing their interest and caring for such beautiful birds unique to our country. Whatever you decide to do from here on out, continue to let us know about it. I’m sure many of us will be more than willing to support you in it. ;_(

    • Sue January 24, 2016 3:00 am

      DebMV63Seattle, Thank you for your good words, and putting into words what the majority of we crane lovers are not adept in doing so!


  37. Mary Provost, Dan Demko January 23, 2016 4:08 pm

    Thank you so very much for the beautiful journey. Dan and I will forever cherish your vision and dedication to restoring eastern migrating flocks of magnificent whooping cranes. We will continue to support and follow OM as the team begins a new chapter. May whoopers thrive!
    Mary and Dan

  38. Diane McAllister January 23, 2016 3:33 pm

    Very sad that this is the end of UL and I’m not sure what the DAR technique is but it IS about the birds and I wish you all the luck in finding a solution to their successful migration

  39. Warrenwesternpa January 23, 2016 3:30 pm

    End of the Ultralight Led Migration Joe Duff

    The United States government is stuffed with bullies seeking to destroy our very fabric. They lead the FAA, Transportation department, even the nation. Some of it is to make us feel safe, but are we really? How many problems have we seen with the TSA? This is just another reason to vote in a whole new slate of people who have proven, they can lead. Some of the contestants appear to be rediculous. But they offer something of what we used to be.
    Praying for our country as many of you are. We will still be the last woman or man standing. So Be It !
    Thank you for your service, Operation Migration !


  40. Gary Graves January 23, 2016 2:45 pm

    A thoughtful and gracious explanation, Joe. No one can doubt the passion, dedication, and resourcefullnes of the OM team. But, as you say, it’s always been about the birds. Bravo on a job well done to everyone involved. I will forever be a fan. I will miss the migration.

    • Patti Hakanson January 23, 2016 4:40 pm


  41. Robert W. Stewart January 23, 2016 2:33 pm

    I am a retired wildlife biologist who worked in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. For years I have been tracking the North American efforts to introduce a second self-sustaining population of whoopers. It is obvious that the Eastern flock is having issues raising recruits to the fledgling stage. However, to just give up on the aircraft led migration seems at this stage to be rather short sighted to me. It has been the most successful attempt so far of achieving a self sustaining population. Just what are the “powers that be” suggesting that will improve on Operation Migration’s (OM) efforts? I have heard of no other methods that come close to the OM record of successfully getting birds into a second migrating population. So the Eastern flock will just be abandoned to wither away like the Florida non migratory population while birds are pumped into Louisiana with the same or worse problems. In Joe Duff’s post he mentioned that captive bird genetic changes may be one of the problems. As he says using Wood Buffalo population eggs would be one way to eliminate that genetic variable. Surely with all the current infrastructure in place it would make sense to attempt this before dumping OM. Their eggs have been used before so why not now? Joe mentioned government approvals as as factor but what else are “they” going to do? Do I assume they will just sit on their hands and do nothing while OM is cancelled and available young captive whooper recruits are thrown away on some other new scheme. Thank God when people stopped killing individual members of the Wood Buffalo /Aransus population through shooting and habitat destruction they were able to recover “themselves”. I just think the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is making a HUGH mistake by cancelling OM without a better answer in place.

    • Sybby January 23, 2016 3:37 pm

      Robert, I hope you have shared your experienced and trained thoughts with the powers that be. It is a shame that that proven data, positive components and years of indisputable results have made the powers that be to determine that Operation Migration has not contributed enough, to their standards, to the Whooping Crane forwardship and sustainabilty as to annihilate their unique abilities. The facts are there. The Whooping Cranes are trained without a thought as to the politics of this situation. The birds know nothing about what their welfare costs. The birds know nothing whether it is from taxes, federal funds or heartfelt public donors that truly believe in what Operation Migration is doing. What the birds know is that they have been cared for 24/7. They are doing the best they can with what their genes tell them. Human dilemmas and politics isn’t going to change what the birds have in their minds. It’s all about the birds. The birds are the focus. Just the birds. This decision tells me there are components in this decision that are not based on the best interest of the birds…..’nuff said.

    • Dave Sapko January 23, 2016 7:25 pm

      Amen Mr. Stewart.

    • Lu Duncan Frank January 23, 2016 8:37 pm

      Agreed, and I’m only a lay person. Thank you for your unbiased comments. I hope that OM can be brought back!

    • Mindy January 23, 2016 9:55 pm

      Thank you so much Robert. It is so refreshing to hear a wildlife biologist say the same things we all have been saying! So glad you posted this comment.

  42. Don Pollette January 23, 2016 2:22 pm

    I was in error in saying the end of OM. It is the end of UL guided migrations. May OM live on and contribute its fine work with our beloved Wooping Cranes


  43. Anni Grammel–Inverness FL January 23, 2016 1:59 pm

    I would like to thank all of you for the amazing journey.I have cried tears of sadness and often tears of joy.I thank you for your dedication and love for the birds.I remember and cherish the first fly-over in Crystal River and the ups and downs of the migrations.I hope and pray that the birds will survive and thrive.For now I will visit Levy and Peeper.I wish you all the best and please keep all of us informed where your next journey takes you

  44. Kat January 23, 2016 1:58 pm

    While my heart is heavy with disappointment for the end of UL guided migration it breaks for each of you and the heartache you are feeling right now. You have devoted yourselves and sacrificed so much for these beautiful birds. But we must remember it is about the cranes and we can all continue to support OM, and each of you, in every possible way. May God be with each of you and may He teach us the way to help save His beautiful cranes.

  45. Mike Martin January 23, 2016 1:36 pm

    This is a sad result for such a well coordinated effort. I live in Hardin County, TN and twice during the past three years, I have witnessed a flock of the birds migrating north on their own. I thought how lucky I was to see something to rare. I have been very hopeful for success long term. Good luck on your continuing efforts.

  46. Dave Hanson January 23, 2016 1:18 pm

    keep your heads up my friend…You have done a good thing and it is not over yet.keep us informed as how we can help.yes it is for the birds… but it is clear they still need some help.

  47. Pete Fasbender January 23, 2016 1:18 pm

    It’s truly a pleasure to work with the passionate, dedicated professionals at Operation Migration and the entire Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership. Since the project’s inception, we all have worked hard and made sacrifices with the shared goal of a self-sustaining migratory eastern population of whooping cranes. When we began this, we knew it would be no small task and there was no guarantee of success. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would take an immense partnership, working together toward the shared goal, if we were to have any chance of success.

    Because much of the work we do is a “first of its kind thing,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates under an adaptive management strategy. We use the best information we have to develop and implement actions. Then we monitor those actions and adjust as we gain more knowledge. This is one of those moments where we have gained enough knowledge and need to adjust our actions.

    The one thing we have never needed to adjust is the value of partnerships. Operation Migration has been an amazing partner. They have helped us reach numerical goals, as well as the social goals. Without their efforts, we would not have the possibility for natural productivity of whooping crane pairs on the landscape, as well as the strong public awareness and passion for our work. This support is absolutely critical. In this time of adaptation, where we move away from a number of various aspects of the costume-rearing program in order to reach our goal of a self-sustaining population, I look forward to working with Operation Migration into the future and standing beside them to celebrate when we do reach this milestone.

    While the Fish and Wildlife Service and Operation Migration agree on the vast majority of issues we contemplate on this project, we differ on the aspect of ultralight led migration. Despite our differences, OM continues to help the Partnership look to the future as we try to mitigate the lack of natural reproductive success of whooping cranes within the Eastern Migratory Population. This, in itself, speaks volumes to the character of Operation Migration staff and supporters – in particular the leadership and vision of Joe Duff. In the end we all want the same thing – recovery of the whooping crane where birds are raising birds. Let’s keep it going!

    • Margaret Howden January 24, 2016 9:31 am

      Pete, I would appreciate it if you address the inconsistency in your comment that “We use the best information we have to develop and implement actions. Then we monitor those actions and adjust as we gain more knowledge. This is one of those moments where we have gained enough knowledge and need to adjust our actions.” ?

      Of course we would expect the decisions to be made based on a scientific process, and I say that in spite of being one of many thousands of people who has been inspired by the beauty and elegance of seeing whoopers over Wisconsin once again.

      But the discrepancies Jeff discovered in the WECP data, and the initial resistance from F&WS regarding use of BTi at Necedah in spite of the department using it at other marshes, indicates something other than science is the major player in this decision. OM obviously is concerned about hand-raising and genetic adaption to hand-raising; it would seem addressing that issue while still supporting LARGE ultralight cohorts using Wood Buffalo eggs would be the logical and much more prudent solution to increasing fecundity. WECP data shows what a poor record DAR has in regard to first-year survival, and unless those colts make it to breeding age, there is zero chance they can improve wild hatch rate.

      Wildlife biologist Robert W. Stewart raises some of these concerns with F&WS’s “best information we have” in his lengthy post, above. I would truly appreciate your addressing these points, and I don’t mean this in a snarky way at all. Your post reads more like a pr paper than a scientific one.

  48. Sue Fogg January 23, 2016 1:15 pm

    This is sad for me after watching the UL flights for so long. I realize its all about the birds so what I have to say is a huge thank you to all involved.
    I appreciate the explanation of what has happened, Bless you all!


  49. eugenia (aka CraneWatcher) January 23, 2016 1:08 pm

    I want to comment but right now I’m speechless. Somehow I really didn’t think it was going to happen…. More later.

  50. Jerry Woodall January 23, 2016 1:07 pm

    God Bless You All. Lets all send good thoughts to the birds. I saw my first whooping crane in the Bodcau Dam cypress swamp of North Louisiana in 1950 as a 12 year old. It is forever in my memory. I know I will see another.

  51. Anne January 23, 2016 1:07 pm

    Joe Duff and OM and everyone involved, thank you! You have given your lives for these birds, and have made a huge difference. There is still so much we can do! Blessings in your new endeavor!

  52. Braveheart January 23, 2016 12:59 pm

    so very very sad, I know hard you all tried & we have been thrilled watching your journeys

  53. Bruce Potter January 23, 2016 12:56 pm

    Excellent report, if a bit painful to read because of the emotional engagement of many of the principals. As an outsider this may seem an impertinent or ignorant interjection, but I’m curious if there is any evidence (or data collection that would tell us) of learning on the part of the adult whoopers. Are second-, third- or fourth-generation pairs any more successful at raising chicks than the “novices.”


  54. Ellen Kay Schlieckau January 23, 2016 12:54 pm

    Many of us will continue to support OM. Going forward please let us know. I am so sad hearing this news.


  55. Mark Kenderdine January 23, 2016 12:39 pm

    Well, as always, we’re hoping for the best and thank you for all that you do!

  56. Judy January 23, 2016 12:32 pm

    You gave it your all. We are grateful. God speed friend.

  57. Denise Renee January 23, 2016 11:59 am

    Heart broken, but how can we help support OM? Please let us know.

  58. Fred Hileman January 23, 2016 11:51 am

    This is indeed a sad ending. We, CItrus County Audubon, Florida were always excited when we were able to go to the Dunnellon, FL airport to park the hundreds of cars filled with people who came to view the flyover. We have been very aware of the fly into St Marks in the Panhandle.Even more disappointing, I am sure, is the resulting realization that you have recognized that it is not a sustainable operation.


  59. Elizabeth Platt January 23, 2016 11:50 am

    I appreciate this detailed report, and hope very much for the success of the proposed remedies.

  60. Deanna uphoff January 23, 2016 11:29 am

    I am heartbroken.

  61. Dave Sapko January 23, 2016 11:26 am

    IMO, the US F&W ‘experts’ have made a short-sighted decision. Prior to 2001, under the same watchful eyes of the US F&W, the Whooping Crane population in the EMP was what? Zero? Now, thanks wholly to OM there are wild Whoopers in the EMP. Killing OM is wrong.

  62. Jen January 23, 2016 11:17 am

    I have been fortunate to have attended several fly over events (and able to practice photography with my zoom lens as well. )The photos, and the poems elicited by the event have been precious. Now, even more so. I am sorrowful at this news, but remain hopeful . I pray the dedicated individuals who have sacrificed and given so much, and likely lost many things in the process , will be amply rewarded. “Weeping may tarry for a he might, but joy comes with the morning” Ps.30:5. May you have many mornings of joy ! And may the birds live on in health and multiply greatly.

  63. Cam Bailey January 23, 2016 11:06 am

    Absolutely devastated. This is so short-sighted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, but what can you expect from a bureacracy that is only interested in protecting their own jobs rather than the animals they are trying to save. OM was doing the job better so have to get rid of the competition. PATHETIC!

  64. Clarence Arnold January 23, 2016 11:05 am

    Many have lost their wings, some, a few have gained theirs. So why am I so sad…I was at my friends interment the other day and most likely no one but I heard the distant bird song. If I could know how to give more, I could gain, but only in my dreams. Yours are real and none can move yours. Appreciation for you is beyond most obtain. I appreciate as much as most for the wings you have given.

  65. Willie Johnson January 23, 2016 11:02 am


    I’m sadden to hear that the USFWS and Mr. Fasbender in particular, have decide to end the flight led program. I spoke with Mr. Fasbender via email a couple of times in support of keeping the program, at least 3-5 more years, to get additional data. He seemed to have a genuine concern about the fragile state of whooping cranes and was making a decision based on his interpretation of the available information. Now, the outcome of this decision rests squarely on the back of the USFWS . Time will tell.

    I recently became more involved with this issue, and in particular, Operation Migration. It is amazing to me to see the level of commitment and sacrifice that so many people have made to ensure the future of whooping cranes. Particularly, you and all the staff at Operation Migration, as well as all the volunteers who have contributed so much time, energy, and money to this noble project to give whooping cranes a chance for recovery.

    It is rare to see such a level of commitment by humans to save another species – it is a sign, I hope, of our own evolution to honor and value the importance of other species.

    I will continue to support Operation Migration any way that I can.

    Willie Johnson

  66. Mindy January 23, 2016 10:59 am

    Joe and OM Team: I am so very saddened to hear this news as I know you are, but your hands are tied. Thank you for everything! We all know that it has been very difficult to go through this whole process, especially to leave 6 birds holding in order to have to go through the meetings. You and the Team make us all so proud to know you as much as we do and I feel such an honor and priviledge to share even a small part of this magnificent endeavor of watching over, training, and flying with these wonderful Whoopers and being able to share their lives up close via the cams. You have made such a contribution to the Eastern population and the whole species. No one can ever take that away…..What a terrible hole this decision by the “powers that be” will leave in all of our hearts, with the biggest one in yours, Brooke’s and every OM Team member. Hugs to all of you. Rock on Class of 2015 and get safely to St. Marks….

  67. Carol Giancola January 23, 2016 10:44 am

    May God bless all at OM and all people honestly working to sustain the Whooping Crane species. May God watch over all Whooping Cranes present and future babies.

  68. Mary W-D January 23, 2016 10:34 am

    Joe, thank you for sharing the news, despite how very hard it is to hear and digest. This is hard to swallow and is indeed going to take some processing. I’m not up to any more comment than this for now — but have to find a few words right now at least to say my thanks and admiration for the entire OM team is immense …. beyond words, actually.
    I’m thinking this whole family of craniacs is going to need a gathering and a ceremony to say thanks, and direct our energies to the future.
    Aching at present.

  69. Don Pollette January 23, 2016 10:27 am

    Sorry to see the end of OM , your activities and stories for the last 15 years on “In the field” have kept me and thousands of craniacs entertained and informed. But it is all about the birds, I hope you stay involved in helping to develop a better way for their survival.
    Don Pollette


  70. Reta January 23, 2016 10:13 am

    This greatly saddens me after having viewed the UL training at Necedah and following the fall migration on FB. Fascinating information in this article. Who would have thought that possibly the key to a lack of better success might be bad parenting. Logical.
    To the OM team THANK YOU for your years of dedication.


    • Howard January 23, 2016 4:58 pm

      So sorry to hear about end of ul work. We were looking forward to fly over on Sunday. Will birds still be in St Mary’s tomorrow?

  71. Stacy Iwanicki January 23, 2016 9:45 am

    It is with a heavy heart and an open mind I read this news. I am so grateful to Operation Migration for all you’ve done and for sharing every step of your 15 year journey with us. For the first few years, OM was my home page and I would watch faithfully as the program progressed. Your commitment to involving the general public was, and is, a great service to conservation and to citizen science. Thank you Heather, Joe, and Brooke for your wonderful writings over the years and thanks to all the others behind the scenes whose names are less familiar. Thank you Jeff for joining the team and bringing further depth of scientific analysis to this amazing project.
    Oh, by the way, I just logged on after watching your piece airing on Outdoor Wisconsin. Great job everybody! Best Wishes to you all as you continue your work “for the birds!”

    • Christopher Nixon January 25, 2016 1:16 am

      Here is the link to the episode of Outdoor Wisconsin that Stacy Iwanicki mentioned in her post.


      The OM/USFWS Whooping Crane story is the last of the four stories covered in this 30 minute episode. Living in Montana, I didn’t know of the Outdoor Wisconsin TV program until seeing it mentioned by Stacy in the Operation Migration Field Journal Comments – just another example of OM providing a conduit for interesting connections and contacts concerning the environment and endangered species. Thank you OM Team!

  72. Lara Leaf January 23, 2016 9:44 am

    I am trying really hard to not tear up at the thought that this will be the last trike-led migration I will be able to witness, never again witness the training. After you and the team giving basically your lives over to it for so long, I can not even begin to imagine how you all feel. I have never known such dedicated people – it has been an honor to be a part of your endeavor.
    I wish you all luck in your future undertakings in working with the different projects concerning Whooping Cranes. Mayhap you could bring your experience and ‘fresh eyes’ to a different aspect of insuring the future of this magnificent bird.
    Thank you all for this unique, incredible journey and teaching experience you have brought to so many.

  73. Michael H. Sheridan January 23, 2016 9:43 am

    I commend your response in that you are more concerned about the birds than your organizations continued existence. I realize that this is difficult but certainly noble. Thanks.
    I hope that OM can joint effort with ICF and governmental agencies to utlize the best from each source to help our cranes.

  74. LeslieAnn Killette January 23, 2016 9:37 am

    I got to experience this. I was in Brundrige Alabama hunting and seen they fly over I googled n found information about what I saw. I’m saddened to hear it has come to an end. From what I read it was a great thing you were doing for the birds.

  75. Nina Kirienko January 23, 2016 9:37 am

    There are also no words to express the gratitude that we behind the scenes supporters have for the amazing team and volunteers at OM. We are and will always be right there with you. Thank you.

  76. Rochelle Sergeant January 23, 2016 9:33 am

    I am so sad. I followed for many years. As a former Wisconsinite it was a connection to home ‘.

  77. Linda Maria Reichert January 23, 2016 9:32 am

    God bless you for all you have done. I only hope that people will continue to find what is truly needed to bring the Whooping Crane numbers back to where they will be able to naturally repopulate in the wild. Thank you thank you thank you!

  78. Carlotta Abbott January 23, 2016 9:31 am

    I’m stunned at this news-speechless.

  79. PattiLat January 23, 2016 9:31 am

    Well. I’ve read your heart breaking entry, so perfectly titled, several times. To me, it is premature to end the UL method at this time. Where I judge the UL method superior, others don’t. Regardless, my confidence and support will continue to be with the OM team, Joe, Heather, Brooke, etc. in all your coming endeavors. I know every decision you make will be, “It’s all about the birds.” Thank you for this integrity and dedication. Godspeed to you!

  80. Dagmar January 23, 2016 9:24 am

    Thank you to all the human beings involved in this effort. I consider this to have been a human triumph! I look forward to future groups of people coming together to solve more problems in the human environment in the ways that you have so successfully demonstrated! I would like to thank each of you for improving my world by conserving cranes and improving the chances that they will remain a part of the world!

  81. Bob Russell January 23, 2016 9:21 am

    Sad to hear but kudos for an amazing effort to all at OM that worked their tails off year after years. Another potential niche might be attempting a reintroduction in the interlakes area of Manitoba and leading them to Louisiana using eggs directly from Wood Buffalo. Worth looking into by the recovery team.

  82. Carol Phillips January 23, 2016 9:21 am

    So sorry. I believe in this program. Am upset this has happened!!

  83. Marnie Gaede January 23, 2016 9:16 am

    I am heartbroken! The 100 birds are a beautiful success. You have inspired me with your selfless dedication to restoring an endangered species pathway. Is there any chance the decision could be reversed? I have featured your work in my Environmental Issues class since you began and followed the joy and heartbreak in the daily field journal. I hope you can continue in some way, but if not, thanks for the wonderful effort and love you provided, with so much bad news, you demonstrated hope.

  84. Patricia January 23, 2016 9:14 am

    My head bows in sadness. God bless you all for what you have accomplished. I will be able to tell stories to my little granddaughter about how brave and dedicated people helped Whooping Cranes learn to migrate from WI to FL. I will tell her the funny stories, the sad stories, I will tell her how I sat at my computer before dawn and watched the cams and cried as I saw the cranes string out and follow, drifting above and below the wings, how they changed position in their line – how I watched as they learned how to migrate, how to “program” into their brains the sacred path to winter grounds. I will tell her their stories, for each of those cranes has their own story, as do the pilots and staff. I will save all the Journal entries and videos and photos for her – for she is the future, she will be able to watch, and listen to the “honks”, laugh at thinking the DM is alive just as her Gramma did time after time, she will look up at the sky and wonder if someday there will be whooping cranes flying over. You can’t save a species unless you instill a love and dedication in our youth, for after we are gone, so will go that species unless someone takes up that battle cry to save them, and that cry will be heard loud, WHOOP, WHOOP.

  85. Patti Hakanson January 23, 2016 9:13 am

    I really have, no words… All I can say is a heart felt thank you to all of you who have tirelessly dedicated yourselves to these wonderful birds these past 15 years without question, and for that I am sure we are all most grateful, at least there are some surviving birds out there and that counts for a lot. God Blkess each and every one of you for all you have done, it was my pleasure to be able on 2 migrations to meet you all and see the magnificent work you have done for the birds, ……

  86. Katie Koniewicz January 23, 2016 9:08 am

    On behalf of hundreds of whooping cranes and thousands of Craniacs — THANK YOU!

  87. Karen Anne January 23, 2016 9:07 am

    I knew that the Louisiana project and it’s high loss of birds and lowering of the number of birds OM would have was a very bad thing. I had no idea it would sink OM. I think the upper levels of management above OM have made substantial mistakes resulting in this awfulness, for what reason I don’t know. Whether it is poor science or bias of some sort…

    I thank everyone associated with OM for all the very hard work they have done. You were the best chance the whoopers had. Between the Louisiana project and upper management, that chance, which seemed to me a few years ago to be on the verge of tipping into success, seems now gone.

  88. Katie Koniewicz January 23, 2016 9:07 am

    On behalf of hundreds of cranes and thousands of Craniacs — THANK YOU!

  89. Janice Stevenson January 23, 2016 9:05 am

    So very sorry to hear this….

  90. Patricia wenzel January 23, 2016 8:54 am

    Thank you for all the work you have done but mostly thank you for sharing your work with all of us who have contributed, watched the fligh cam, or waited in the dawn hours at a flyover. We will miss those things and the field reports written with such good humor. I hope we will be allowed to participate in our small ways with whatever program succeeds this one. We will, I’m sure keep our eyes open for a sighting of these beautiful white birds.

  91. Kathleen Carr January 23, 2016 8:52 am

    Thank you Joe and the entire OM team for the many years of hard work. I’m sorry to see this come to an end. It seems premature to me.

  92. Angie January 23, 2016 8:48 am

    Thoughts are with you guys. I will hold onto that second to last paragraph Joe because its the sensible mantra to move forward with. “about the birds.”

  93. Will January 23, 2016 8:47 am

    You guys are doing great work. I have followed the project for many years. Back when I taught outdoor education I referenced this project a lot. Im sorry that you have hit such a large bump in the road but I hope the team sticks with it. Its important work and there is still plenty to do. Thanks for everything you’ve done.

  94. Marcia Morgan January 23, 2016 8:42 am

    Good work folks, still behind you in your effort!

  95. Gums January 23, 2016 8:39 am

    Salute all!

    Sad news, and I guess that only reason OM cannot continue with the trikes with 100% private funding is due to U.S. “endangered species” status, is that right?

    Secondly, what happened to all the birds led down to the Crystal River/Citrus country area?

    Gums sends…

  96. Janel Novak January 23, 2016 8:38 am

    You have provided a good explanation for WCEP’s decision, but you must be heartbroken, as I am to read this news. Feeling sad.

  97. DKT January 23, 2016 8:38 am

    This made me cry!

  98. ffmn January 23, 2016 8:37 am

    Appreciate the detailed, informative , summary of what issues were brought forth at the meetings. It appears , Jeff, was a great addition to OM . Yesterdays are gone and future awaiting. Yes, it is about the birds and their survival . From what I pick up, OM is not totally Out of Business at this point.? Thanks for being a teacher to all of your supporters and followers. Trish

  99. Monica January 23, 2016 8:36 am

    Im speechless. All I can say is “Thank you” for all you have done for the birds.

  100. Russell Allison January 23, 2016 8:34 am

    I have tears in my eyes. I have followed OM for all these years. I hope that the birds will still be able to make a come back. I know the OM crew is heart broken. I have met all of you and love you all. I will try to follow in the following years and see what happens. Good luck and thank all of you for a valiant effort.

  101. Mary Ann January 23, 2016 8:29 am

    thank you OM for all you have done. We won’t ever forget all the hard work you’ve done and hope that you all will continue with the work of helping with the Whooping Cranes future survival.

  102. CrabtowneMd January 23, 2016 8:27 am

    Thank you for the detailed explanation of other factors that are at play.
    While a big door has been shut, there does appear to be a small window to let in a “new dawn”. I have only followed the whoopers for one season and it has been enlightening, thrilling, and uplifting. I know that if there is a way for OM to continue helping develop a sustainable population of whoopers you will find it. With much sadness and a bit of hope, Thank you for all your efforts.

  103. Dorothy N January 23, 2016 8:24 am


  104. Ruth Mitchell January 23, 2016 8:23 am

    There are simply no words for how sad and disheartened I am over this news. But I am praying that you wonderful people will continue to work with our magnificent Whooping Cranes, even if it doesn’t include our wonderful Flying Machines….and that we can continue to watch, encourage and support you in the future. Thank you for years of dedication, selflessness, wisdom and love. God bless each and every one of you..you are loved and admired ( And I am crying )

  105. Shirley Green January 23, 2016 8:23 am

    Thank you for that informational report. So glad to know OM will continue although in a different role. Will stay tuned to this OM site for updates.

  106. Maxgreenwing Walsh January 23, 2016 8:22 am

    I am sorry. Fondly , Maxgreenwing