If we were not optimistic, we wouldn’t have the stamina to work with Whooping cranes. In fact, you have to be looking on the bright side if you are willing to bet years of hard work on building a self-sustaining population. That optimism is what carries us through days like Monday when 3-14 and 4-12 lost their eggs to a hungry coyote.
Since 2011 when we moved from Necedah to White River, the number of chicks we have been able to release each year has been down. In part, that is a result of lower reproduction at the captive centers and the splitting of resources between two reintroduction programs. And reintroduction is all about numbers. There is a critical mass when programs like this hit a mysterious number and things begin to work. Researchers can estimate that pivotal quantity with a population viability analysis but a lot still has to do with luck. Good breeding seasons are balanced by tough winters. Heavy predation at one end of the migration is offset by bountiful food resources at the other and eventually the averages begin to work. Dispersal comes next as the growing population moves to a range wide enough that one local event does not affect the entire population.
California condors are an example of the critical mass. Although they are still critically endangered, the number are starting to work out – slowly – and after 26 years. Trumpeter swans are also experiencing annual growth now that there are substantial numbers in the Midwest. Even the Aransas, Wood Buffalo population of Whooping cranes reached that magic number sometime in the 1970s or 80s when it was large enough that tough years didn’t send the flock into a tailspin.
None of the Whooping crane reintroduction projects has reached that turning point yet but that is not much comfort when we witness events like we saw on Monday evening. We all knew the numbers were against that pair. Only two birds, still young and inexperienced and at least a season or two from normal breeding success age. Still they did a great job. They were dedicated and vigilant and gave every indication of being good parents. They have learned valuable lessons and next season there will be more pairs like them until the numbers begin to work for them.
It is disheartening and sad but it’s all in the numbers. We add more birds each year, hedging our bets until the odds are in our favor. Like a wise gambler, we don’t hang all of our hopes on the long-shot. We don’t count on one bet to carry the day. Instead, we keep at it, balancing disappointment with optimism because we know the numbers will eventually work and the bet will no longer be a gamble.