Operation Migration began working closely with the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center back in 1995 when we first raised Sandhill cranes to determine if our aircraft guided reintroduction technique could be applied to a crane species. Dr. George Gee was head of research and one of my first mentors.
I met many of the crane crew members on a trip out to Arizona with Dr. David Ellis. David was a biologist at Patuxent (retired) and is a leading avian expert, particularly of raptors. He traveled the world, fought international conservation battles and wrote several books and over a hundred research papers. Ever the adventurer, David was experimenting with a variety of methods to teach migration. He and a team of young, enthusiastic biotech’s were attempting to lead a small flock of Sandhill cranes from Flagstaff, AZ to New Mexico. The juvenile cranes were imprinted on the handlers and had been conditioned to follow an old army surplus ambulance while one of the techs perched in the rear door blowing a whistle and another drove down the back-roads trying to maintain 35 miles per hour – corners and all. That was one of David’s least wild adventures and you can follow this link if you care to read his book “Wings Across the Desert.”
The point of that story is that those young biotech’s became the first whooping crane migration crew. They spent the summer in Wisconsin and the fall shepherding, first Sandhills then Whooping cranes to Florida in the years when we had 18 to 20 cranes per season.
Patuxent was a founding member of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and people like Dr. Glenn Olsen, have been involved since the beginning. Every spring we provided experienced crane handlers to help raise the chicks and condition them to follow our aircraft.
Recently it was announced that the USGS, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center crane ecology program is closing. Within a year, all of the captive cranes will be relocated but so far it is not known where. It is difficult to know how this will effect both the Eastern Migratory Population and the Louisiana Non-Migratory flock, however, there are four other captive breeding facilities.
The International Crane Foundation is in Wisconsin, Audubon Center in Louisiana, the San Antonio Zoo in Texas and the Calgary Zoo in Canada. Plus there are a few other facilities interested in becoming a Whooping crane propagation sites.
From our perspective, it is a terrible loss of an agency that made a longstanding commitment to crane conservation. Especially as Whooping cranes are still critically endangered. However, we understand the difficulties of budget cuts.
We will keep you posted as we learn more.