Just the Facts

In an article in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 18 Wade Harrell, coordinator of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, was asked to comment on the departure of OM from the Whooping Crane Recovery Team. He was very gracious about our contribution but again skirted around the real issue. Here is a link to the article and below, a few excerpts, and facts that he avoided.

“The eastern migration population of cranes that Operation Migration nurtured in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau County now has over 100 members”, said Wade Harrell, Fish & Wildlife Service whooping crane recovery coordinator. “The number is encouraging but the flock is struggling to raise wild chicks and changes need to be made, he said.” 

Changes included cutting Operation Migration’s plane-led migration training for baby birds — which Harrell said jump-started the cranes’ reintroduction to the wild — and shifting raising of the chicks from human caregivers to captive adult cranes.“The changes may help the cranes learn natural rearing abilities, thus reducing chick mortality rates,” Harrell said. 

But Harrell said “the flock needs to focus on the unique challenges posed by their environment and circumstances. With sturdy numbers, the eastern migration population needs to focus on raising “natural” chicks, rather than pure chick numbers, so they can sustain themselves. The more that we can mimic Mother Nature in how we raise a chick in captivity, the more wild it will be when released,” he said.


The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Whooping Crane Recovery Team insist the cause of low reproduction within the Eastern Migratory Population (EMP) is a result of artificiality – especially in the way Operation Migration raised the birds. Rather than the cranes being raised by people in costume, they directed WCEP to release only cranes that were raised in captivity by real Whooping crane parents. In other words, we could only release parent-reared birds as opposed to costume-reared birds.

Their idea is that birds raised by costumed people miss some nurturing lessons that would help them defend their own offspring once they mature. Inattentive parents, they suggest, is the reason up to 20 or so chicks that hatch each spring at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge die before they learn to fly.

There are many factors that suggest this strategy is wrong but they continue to ignore the facts:

Fact one: Parent-rearing has been used numerous times in the past. It was even used to release Mississippi Sandhill cranes but the technique did not improve reproduction success.

Fact two: There is no way to test the benefits of parent-rearing within the EMP. Even if it was a superior method, it is impossible to demonstrate those results. The EMP is a mix of Whooping cranes raised by various means including costume-reared, parent-reared, Direct Autumn Release (DAR), Ultralight-led and even a few wild hatched chicks. If a parent-reared crane breeds with a DAR crane or an ultralight crane, how is it possible to determine which method led to the success or failure of that pair to raise a chick? So how is the Recovery Team going to tell if those “cranes learn natural rearing abilities, thus reducing chick mortality rates”. Even if two parent reared cranes paired and bred successfully it would be a sample size of one and nothing on which to base any sort of conclusion.

Fact three: The only way to test the superiority of parent-rearing would be to flood the landscape with chicks raised using that release method. If enough of them survived to breed, they would be able to see a clear delineation in breeding success, but the Recovery Team has restricted the number of chicks available to the EMP so that method is not available.

Fact four: It has been known since 2007 that black flies at Necedah cause nest abandonment. Those numbers of black flies do not exist at the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, so in 2011, WCEP moved the project to those new locations. However, not enough chicks have been allocated to the program to test those new habitats. Instead, the success of the EMP is judged solely on chick survival at Necedah.

Fact five: It has been known since 2010 that even if a pair can hatch a chick at Necedah, the chances of it surviving long enough to learn to fly are almost zero. However, the cause of that mortality is still unknown and plans to manage that habitat for Whooping cranes has not been developed.

Fact six: Sandhill cranes, which occur naturally in Wisconsin can’t keep their chicks alive at Necedah either. Over the last two years the productivity of Sandhill cranes at Necedah has been studied and the results indicate that they are not doing any better than the Whooping cranes. In fact, this year it seems they are doing far worse. So if a naturally raised Sandhill crane can’t breed successfully at Necedah how can reintroduced cranes be successful there? The Recovery Team and the Fish and Wildlife Service however would rather blame OM than admit that their selection of Necedah as a reintroduction site was a mistake from the beginning.

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  1. Mark Dowling Dowling August 21, 2018 12:49 pm

    This is a shame. To me, Necedah has been a population sink for years. I felt that they should have collected ALL of the eggs there for release in White River Marsh State Wildlife Area and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Leaving so many chicks in Necedah when everyone knew they would not survive was idiotic (IMHO). Imagine if those eggs had been collected and transferred. The program would like be in a much better situation.

  2. Dbs August 20, 2018 11:14 pm

    OM. Thank you. We knew something was wrong with the blanket statement about the costumed chicks.

  3. Donald Huffman August 20, 2018 11:12 pm

    Correction: There were 27 condors captured in 1987; the entire population at that time.

  4. Jean Prigelmiller August 20, 2018 5:01 pm

    Just read a release about the 5 wild fledglings in Louisiana . All parents were COSTUME RAISED—– wondering why it is OK for costume rearing for Louisiana, but not OK for EMP ?

    • Heather Ray August 20, 2018 5:28 pm

      That’s a great question to ask the experts.

  5. Donald Huffman August 19, 2018 9:38 pm

    There were 446 condors in ’16 276 in the wild 170 in captivity.

    • Rick Jones August 20, 2018 10:02 am

      I am another long time supporter of OM who is very disheartened by the determination that a self sustaining EMP is not possible given the F&WS policies. I am extremely annoyed and terribly saddened that all the knowledge, dedication and efforts of OM have been disregarded by the Recovery Team and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

      Thank you Joe for the response and thank you and the OM team for everything you have done.

  6. Donald Huffman August 19, 2018 9:18 pm

    I propose that every whooper at Necedah be captured and have their wings clipped and be used to produce eggs and off spring that could be used to reproductive advantage.

    Consider in 1987 all 17? California condors were captured, de leaded and used as breeding stock. Now, a viable flock has been achieved. Yes, condor reintroduction has not had some problems that whoopers have had; yet, they have had some problems that whoopers have not had.

  7. Donald Huffman August 19, 2018 9:02 pm

    What I would like to see is a 4H project that would introduce whoopers to wet land that is too low to drain; say 2 or 3 families and teach them to migrate. Or introduce 2 or 3 families in the South as stationary flocks.

    Also could whoopers be introduced along the flyway of the Wood Buffalo flock which they could hook up with the Wood Buffalo flock?

    • Heather Ray August 20, 2018 7:13 am

      The Wood Buffalo population is growing so the plan is to leave that flock alone. Recovery goals stipulate that down-listing will be achieved with separate and distinct populations. The thought is that if something catastrophic happens to a flock, there are others to carry on.

    • Vanessa Dargain August 20, 2018 2:38 pm

      Good idea . Now you have to get the right people to notice it .


  8. Jean Prigelmiller, CrabtowneMd August 19, 2018 8:02 pm

    Thank you Joe and OM for the response and all your efforts. When the ultra-lite led migrations were stopped, I felt the USFWS decision was premature in assessing the work at White River Marsh and Horicon and possibly the vistim of a “turf battle”. I thought last summers work introducing the colts to the marsh and subsequently adult whoopers was a wonderful model and again, enough time has not passed to accurately assess the ultimate goal of successful nesting. It appears from the work done with Sandhills this summer that even they have a learning curve of several nest “failures” before succeeding. My prayers are for the nesting success of the RC and Henry & Patti and all the other WRM whoopers to prove that OM’s efforts were always on the right path. WCEP has lost a truly dedicated team of crane whisperers. Praying that there is a new chapter waiting for OM.

  9. Bea Orendorff August 19, 2018 7:31 pm

    I suppose there is a snowball’s chance in hell that the publication that Joe quoted would print this FJ…but it should.

  10. Catherine Wohlfeil August 19, 2018 5:02 pm

    Well said.

  11. Barb August 19, 2018 2:53 pm

    Can the OM team find another partner, such as Cornell, Audubon, or National Geaographic? Their resources, meaning money and political clout, may be available and willing to help OM with the mission of reaching a sustainable population of Whooping Cranes. Surely something can be done.

    • Gretchen August 20, 2018 6:35 pm

      Since the Whooping Crane is an endangered species, nothing can be done with them without permits from Fish and Wildlife.

  12. Rev. Sandee D. Kosmo (Sandia Kosmo, pen name) August 19, 2018 2:45 pm

    I wrote a book back in 2016, Wakanda Whooper: The Curious Cinnamon Crane, and set the story at Necedah I thought eventually they’d solve the black fly problem. Since they have not, seems to me that the places where they are thriving should be where they focus the populations. Sad that the whoopers populations in Wisconsin are not meeting with the success that was hoped. Operation Migration is a key part of the book’s story and the crane’s success in Wisconsin. THANK YOU to all who helped.


  13. Lois Masso August 19, 2018 1:50 pm

    I just received this information from following the Cornell Hawk Cam Chatters and am so sad. I, too, looked forward to the adventures of the ultralights leading these beautiful birds to their winter ground and back again to WI. I wondered what happened and, sadly, I just found out. All the work put into the care of these birds shouldn’t be just thrown to the wayside as there WAS much learned in the process. Hopefully this situation can be resolved and we can once again join in their travels. But please use those who have participated for many years to garner the knowledge they have learned when making any changes. They are a wealth of knowledge that isn’t taught in textbooks or the internet!!

  14. Cheryl Congdon – Horicon August 19, 2018 1:23 pm

    I encourage Operation Migration to not give up yet. Move the chick rearing operation to White River Marsh or to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. A better environment for possible future reproduction seems to be the key for future success. Please consider moving away from Necedah.

    • Heather Ray August 19, 2018 2:25 pm

      That’s exactly what was done – in 2011. No birds have been released at Necedah since 2010, however partners were not provided enough cranes to release each year to determine if the move to these new sites 8 years ago was beneficial.

  15. Cheryl Murphy August 19, 2018 1:00 pm

    Thank you Joe for so clearly stating the facts and inherent issues. I applaud your efforts and feel that OM has had the right scientifically sound plan all along. It couldn’t be more clear. It’s takes time to analyze and adapt. OM was on the right path beyond a doubt to save these wonderful endangered birds.

    • Mindy Finklea August 20, 2018 12:43 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree Cheryl. OM has the right stuff and could prove it if given enough birds and time for the study to turn around at WRM.

  16. NWWISbirder August 19, 2018 12:16 pm

    Thank you Joe for the facts. I agree with all the responses. Once the government gets involved everything gets mucked up.

  17. Cheryl Congdon August 19, 2018 11:13 am

    I think it is premature to decide that Operation Migration has not been successful. The rearing operation should be moved away from Necedah to White River Marsh or Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. Both locations are better habitat for successful rearing! I urge Operation Migration not to give up!

  18. Patricia Hakanson August 19, 2018 10:35 am

    I couldn’t agree more Joe with what you said…There are many factors affecting these birds and their survival rate, I for one, however believe that without the efforts of OM and all that was done in 15 years, we would have had a lot less whooping cranes right now. A sad happening that this entire SUCCESSFUL operation has halted. Thank you all ever so much for all the tireless effort and care you have given the whoopers.

  19. Carol Phillips August 19, 2018 10:09 am

    The recovery team did not allow enough time at White River Marsh to learn if efforts here would improve the number of surviving whooping crane young birds. Very disappointed that this effort was not given a chance by giving more support to Operation Migration.
    Carol Phillips, St. Marks, FL

  20. hermitzzz August 19, 2018 9:59 am

    Yes, yes, yes! I agree with all the poster’s comments and thoughts, and although I’m not a wildlife professional, it doesn’t take too much intelligence that Joe is correct on all counts.
    Too bad that the people in charge seem to be number counters (like in money), and not real wildlife guardians as the OM team is, considering all the efforts they have put in during past years. I used to watch them every day and became a small part of the viewers from the Internet.

    What I learned was that the group managing the money, is far more likely to put it into their own ideas, rather than listen to the people “on the ground”.

    I became very distressed in all that I was seeing when the changes came. I do understand the importance of money when it’s accumulated by donations from the public, but these changes became an Achilles heel for OM, thanks to the people that have been put in charge at the top end of the organization.

    It’s also the reason I no longer follow them day by day as I had done in the past….I wonder how many others dropped off as well, due to these changes.

    All those trips via ultralights brought a lot of people over the to the Whoopers and their plight, and as it was live online with chat available, it got many people interested and I am sure it also generated more donations overall, not to mention the camaraderie between the members, generating good will everywhere.

    So, these days I watch only sporadically, keeping an eye on the new posts, should anything change in the future.

    It always seems the people on top of organizations are always the same….non learned in what they are becoming the heads of, take for example in Gov’t, they make a doctor head of the Highways Act……beyond belief, yet it happens far too often.

    Thus I am still a watcher, but it was too heartbreaking for me to keep watching after the ultralights were stopped, and it just wasn’t the same, nor were the efforts of the OM people, who now seemed to be not as accessible on a regular basis like they had been in the past. It was a quite a nice large family then, but now it’s fractured. If I was a multibillionaire I would get rid of the number crunchers and bean counters from the top and re-organize things with people who have some qualifications in the actual job that is being accomplished and at least listen to their results and suggestions.
    Things just haven’t been the same over the last 3 yrs or so, and I’m sure contributions may have dropped due to the changes made. Just how easy was it to attract new donors to the cause by using ultralight cameras and flying with the OM people? This was a match made in heaven.
    I still watch, but now am at a distance, being an avid animal lover, as it was just too distressing, I had to back off for my own health.
    I wonder how many other watchers felt the same, and once the ultralights were stopped, there was really no other recourse for the average public to learn about the Whoopers. They are not going to suddenly go to the library or Internet to learn, that is too much reading, it was a great idea of all the cameras and the entire trip in the air, then people would come out and take part, also telling their friends. Word of mouth has always been a great way to get your story out…..too bad the numnuts at the top don’t see it that way. They are in the wrong job, this organization needs all the help it can get, and much of it from public donations….they need to have real animal/bird caregivers behind them.
    I was truly upset when the changes were made, and I’m betting many others were as well, it was like a routine, get coffee, biscuits and sit down with the OM team while they were getting ready to take their charges south. Also, as an afterthought, as most of us are older that watch them, it was really helpful to keep us in touch with each other and a lovely morning activity to keep with friends. When u look at the old age homes, there is nothing like this to keep all these people’s attention, and was much better than sitting in a chair in a corner somewhere barely aware of one’s surroundings.

    There is so much good to be promoted about OM team, so in a nutshell, they need to have someone at the top that actually cares and listens to the people under them. It seems to me that those in charge currently are only interested in money, not the health and well being of the Whoopers. Why doesn’t this ever happen, even in Gov’t? It’s seemingly friends of friends, or those who are in the right circles that get the jobs on top, and this is not what an organization such as OM needs. I wonder how many donations dropped off after the ultralights were stopped? Personally I had made others aware of the Whoopers, but they have no interest to keep watching now, it’s just not the same. Businesses also need to have a heart in what they are doing, money is, after all, the root of all evil, even though it took me a lifetime to realize it.

    Good luck to the Whoopers and their real caregivers, it’s a long row to hoe…..I hope someone comes along and fixes all these issues instead of bending things to suit their own ideas….this should be all bout the Whoopers, and less about the rules of the people on top. One needs to have a balance of course, but right now it seems like a Top wobbling as it’s spinning down. I don’t think the correct people are in charge at the top. I hope it changes and the OM team’s suggestions are actually listened to, they are, after all, the soldiers on the ground with eyes everywhere.

  21. Barb August 19, 2018 9:53 am

    In my humble opinion, OM is now facing the reality of the “the government is never wrong” syndrome.” Ultimately, the Whooping Cranes are in the center of this deadly syndrome, and will lose. I watch a lot if nature programs showing different ways endangerered animals and birds are being managed sucessfully in different environments. Success is possible, but open minds are a must. Repeat, open minds must be a priority. Unfortunately, our government is focused on 1. Money, 2. Politics, 3. Money, 4. Politics, 5. Money, 7. Politics, and finally, maybe, 8. Facts and innovating ideas. If an innovating and independent organization doesn’t work for the government, and that independent organization has independent funding, the government does not any leverage over them. I believe that is what OM is facing. Our government does not like to share, even if an independent organization is successful in their endeavours. The price paid for this government ego trip is the Whooping Crane and it’s demise. Sad. A sad day, indeed. In my opinion, sometime in the future, after total failure by the government to save the Whooping Crane, the governmental finger pointing and blame game will happen. But it will be too late.

    • Vanessa Dargain August 20, 2018 2:52 pm

      ” The road to hell is paved with good intentions ” , and I think that is how the government sees Operation Migration’s Whooping Crane breeding program . Unfortunately we are forced into a wait and see what happens position . Time should tell which good intention is best .
      In the meantime . . . watch the cranes carefully .


  22. Maggie Turk August 19, 2018 9:52 am

    Well said Joe. I had read the article and I too have to agree with you that the area has been a large factor in the success/failure of OM. All of you at O M have worked your **** off and have provided wonderful entertainment for us nature lover Senior generation and I am so grateful for that. It was so thrilling to follow the ultra light migration each fall and we cried and rejoyced from day after day until the flock was safely delivered to Florida.

  23. Richard P Brooks August 19, 2018 9:35 am

    Thanks for the information and the link to the article. I sure think the WCEP needs your expertise. I also think you have dedicated far more effort and given up far more for the EMP than any other partners. Reading the five year plan it seems as if the usfws gives the EMP about 75 years. We need to change the next 5 year plan to sustain the EMP. The WCEP needs your expertise even in a capacity that is less demanding. I hope you will reconsider disbanding and leaving the WCEP.

  24. Kay Huey August 19, 2018 9:04 am

    Bravo to Operation Migration! I have long wondered about the facts that are lacking behind the allegations. Thank you, Joe, for putting the facts up front for all to see.