Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

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. 

David H. Ellis, Ph.D. (Ret) Research Zoologist, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

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.

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  1. Barb July 8, 2017 4:18 pm

    Perhaps more information is needed, may be not. However, I, for one am so tired of budgets cuts that are affecting people (the taxpayer) , the environment, animals of all kinds that are near and dear to different people, but throughout all the CUTS, I have yet to see ANY cuts to politicians salaries, aids, staff or their high priced life style (meaning their daily per diems, meals, travel, and housing allowances, etc.) they enjoy every single day. It is particularly egregious in Pennsylvania where the State Legislature is in session every single day, save for vacations. When is enough…enough? Our natural resources, whether alive or in the form of revered hallowed ground deserve better.

  2. aintthatamerica July 8, 2017 2:51 pm

    I observed the captive Whooping Cranes at Patuxent in 1970; I never thought about that location changing. I wonder why?

  3. Dorothy N July 8, 2017 2:08 pm

    I am happy for my tax money to support such ventures as Patuxent . If this is the kind of thing “OFL” (Our Fearless Leader) continues to cut, may the environmentalists hit the pavement running to get him out ASAP.

    I will be happy contribute to another effort that takes the Patuxent duties under its wing, and will send the rest of my donations to candidates who respect and will work to preserve our dwindling wildlife treasures.

  4. Catherine Wohlfeil July 7, 2017 10:53 pm

    The loss of Patuxent will be dearly felt.

    With the volume of talent and supportive relationships that have been established by Patuxent and OM over the years, perhaps it’s time for a gathering of that talent in a new venture with OM taking the lead, working in conjunction with the Patuxent team, in the establishment of a breeding facility at White River Marsh; perhaps a concerted effort of OM, Patuxent, Necedah, ICF, and Horicon Marsh to centralize all aspects of the continuing work of establishing the Eastern Migratory Population.

  5. Babs – WA July 7, 2017 8:45 pm

    Truly sad .. and I agree with the comments that place the blame for this on being another environmental gaff and in the midst of chaos. I checked on the book, ‘Wings Across the Desert,’ by Dr. Ellis. It promises to be an excellent read. If anyone is interested in a copy, do follow the link. They will also take phone orders – Canada or US. Phone: 1-800-938-1114. P.S. Joe .. I agree with Robert .. you’re being too polite!

  6. Susan Kryszak July 7, 2017 8:31 pm

    The proposed cut to the USGS 2018 budget is over $10,000,000. The proposed cut to the Whooping crane program is $1,500,000. There are 70 adult Whooping cranes at Patuxent. Some are genetically important, some are mated pairs, some are elderly. There are others who would be at risk in the wild for a variety of physical factors. Patuxent is the largest facility incubating, hatching, and raising chicks both by costume and by Whooper parents.

    While I understand that species propagation is not the mission of the USGS, this program should be phased out, rather than being completely defunded in 2018, to allow facilities time to ramp up both infrastructure and trained staff to accommodate such a large program. This would allow an orderly transition for adult cranes, eggs that will be laid in the spring, and an uninterrupted continuum for the reintroduction programs in both Wisconsin and Louisiana.

    If you feel strongly and wish to voice your concerns, write or call your representatives in congress and/or other conservation organizations about the proposed budget cut.

  7. Gums July 7, 2017 8:01 pm

    Hold up, folks.

    Sounds like this change in the Whooper program was well underway a year ago. We need more info if we want to help with $$ or at the voting booth, ya think?

    We saw the end of the ultralight program over a year and a half ago. I cried on that last day. We just didn’t get the “return on investment” we expected, regardless of how romantic the OM ulttralight effort was. And I wanted to fly so badly with Joe and Brooke that day, being a fellow pilot and bird lover.

    So far the cranes seem to be doing O.K., not great, but not fading away. Until we get to a population that has a 20% or higher successful reproduction flock, the birds are doomed. The Wisconsin crew seems to be doing real well. And you never know when we could try leading a few chicks from Louisiana up north for the summer.

    I was there in New Orleans as a young man when Josephine had her chick. The birds were on the very edge of extinction. My Mom explained how inportant this captive birth was.

    We need more info on the government programs before going off the wall, huh?

    Gums sends…

  8. Robert Stewart July 7, 2017 10:37 am

    Joe you are too polite. Just another environment gaff from American’s new fearless leader. Hopefully other agencies will be able to take over most if not all the wonderful work Patuxent performed.

  9. Jean P. aka CrabtowneMd July 7, 2017 10:28 am

    What a sad result of the current chaos in our government. I am both saddened and angered that the efforts of so many are falling victim to callous budget cuts. Like so much conservation work, there has been a citizen science/ volunteer and philanthropic component to the work done at Patuxent. I wonder what other causes will fall along with our beloved cranes. May OM & WCEP persevere and emerge stronger. Praying for the future of whooping cranes, conservation, and the environment.

  10. Dan Fantore July 7, 2017 10:04 am

    Who is responsible for this change?

  11. Barb July 7, 2017 9:31 am

    Sad news indeed….for the Whooping Cranes. It almost seems like 20 years of work will be all for naught if some doesn’t help our Cranes. 200 Cranes are not sustainable in the long run without help.

  12. Bobbie (piscesbobbie) July 7, 2017 9:02 am

    Oh no! This breaks my heart. Is there anything we can do? Write a letter or call someone?