Operation Migration Resigns from WCEP and Dissolves Organization

Operation Migration took flight 25 years ago when two artists-turned-aviators developed a method of teaching birds a new migratory route. The innovative approach helped stabilize the dwindling population of the magnificent Whooping crane.

Bill Lishman and Joe Duff developed the aircraft-guided migration method into an effective means of reintroducing endangered Whooping cranes into an area they had not inhabited in over a century.

Our first migration flight leading Whooping cranes occurred in 2001 – shortly after the 9-11 attack on the United States. It was a time when the nation needed an uplifting story; one of ordinary people working to save an endangered, North American species.

For 15 years, Operation Migration pilots and a dedicated ground crew led Whooping cranes on a journey toward survival. During those years, we contributed more than $10 million dollars and covered 17,457 miles with a total of 186 trusting Whooping cranes trailing off our wingtips.

Each of the cranes that survived the winter period in Florida returned north the following spring, and continued to migrate annually thereafter. Gradually, the number of cranes began to increase, giving hope for the species, which in the 1940s numbered only 15.

The aircraft-guided migration method was ended in the fall of 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a document titled “FWS Vision for the Next 5-year Strategic Plan” that claimed the method was “too artificial.” They suggested that cranes raised by our costumed handlers resulted in inattentive parents that did not adequately protect their offspring.

We continued work for another 3 years based upon our belief that the goal of a self-sustaining Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping cranes was attainable. However, with new management directives authorized by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and implemented by Region 3 of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we no longer believe this goal to be achievable.

As a result, we cannot continue, in good faith, to accept contributions or justify assigning our staff and volunteers to carry out the work outlined in the strategic plan imposed on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).

This led us to an extremely difficult decision: The management and Board of Directors are withdrawing Operation Migration from membership and participation in WCEP and dissolving the organization. This decision is heartbreaking for us all but we have exhausted all possible avenues to avoid this outcome.

Supporters from around the world have generously contributed to Operation Migration’s aircraft-guided work, its successful costume-rearing program, and education and research efforts, all of which have contributed to the recovery of Whooping crane. When our work began there were fewer than 500 Whooping cranes in North America. Today, the species total stands at more than 700 – a significant part of the increase is attributable to your help.

While disappointed that we were unable to achieve our long-term goal to establish a self-sustaining Whooping crane population, we take great pride in Operation Migration’s accomplishments, which your support and time helped to make possible:

  • Hundreds of thousands of people are more aware of the plight of Whooping cranes and wetlands thanks to our blog posts for the past 19 years;
  • Our partnership with Journey North, a distance learning program, brought information about Whooping cranes to millions of school-aged children worldwide;
  • We hosted the first-ever LIVE streaming camera featuring wild Whooping cranes; 
  • We raised awareness for the Whooping crane and gained global attention for the efforts to save them through the aircraft-guided program for 15 years. Our work was featured in numerous news stories, documentaries and published in many books and magazines that inspired people to care about, and take action for these vulnerable cranes;
  • The reintroduced Whooping cranes are avoiding humans, selecting proper habitat, pairing with other Whooping cranes and are producing offspring;
  • Aircraft used in our work are now on display at three distinguished locations: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), as reminders that people can take innovative action to help wildlife species in trouble;
  • Operation Migration contributed images to numerous educational textbooks over the past 20 years to help tell the story of Whooping cranes to students of all ages;
  • Our work garnered the attention and support of President Jimmy Carter and noted conservationist Jane Goodall.

We are grateful for the awards we have received over the years, which include:

  • 2002 National Wildlife Federation “Conservation Achievement Award;
  • 2003 Canada Post “Canadian Environmental Award”;
  • 2004 The Whooping Crane Conservation Association “Honor Award”;
  • 2006 American Birding Association, Partners in Flight “Outstanding Contribution to Bird Conservation”;
  • 2009 U.S. Dept. Of The Interior “Partners in Conservation Award”.

So many accomplishments, and all achieved with your help. We want to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all Operation Migration members, supporters, volunteers, and staff (past and present).

Your financial and emotional support kept us going more than you will ever know during many stressful and trying periods over the past 18 years of this reintroduction project. You have been like family to us.

There would not be Whooping cranes migrating over eastern North America without your support.

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  1. Bobbie (piscesbobbie) September 8, 2018 12:00 pm

    I am just heartbroken, seriously heartbroken since reading the Field Journal from a few weeks ago. I tried during this time to come up with something profund to say but the tears keep welling up in my eyes. THANK YOU to Operation Migration for opening my eyes to the plight of the beautiful, regal Whooping Crane. This bird has become my favorite bird. I look forward to perhaps hearing good news in the future and wish you all the best.

    • Heather Ray September 9, 2018 8:17 am

      Awww, thanks so much Bobbie. Take care of your Dad 🙂

  2. Marguerite M Turk September 5, 2018 11:33 am

    This has not been a great summer for me. After losing my husband of 67 years in June, then comes the news of funding etc. for Operation Migration being discontinued . Just too much and I will miss all the information on the cranes that has been a part of my life since 2001. Thanks for all the thrills and information of those beautiful creatures. Hopefully I will be able to get a glimpse from time to time out at the Horicon Marsh. Thanks thanks thanks!!

    • Heather Ray September 5, 2018 1:34 pm

      Maggie, I’m so sorry for your loss. I wasn’t aware that Virgil had passed. I feel privileged to have met him.

  3. Sara September 1, 2018 3:58 pm

    My husband and I were on the highway one day in Indiana and a plane flew over us with big white birds flying behind. I sat the rest of the week on the computer searching for birds flying with planes and found operation migration and was hooked! This turned me into a crazy bird lady which has been a wonderful experience.

    • Heather Ray September 2, 2018 2:37 pm

      What a fabulous story Sara! Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Elaine Boston August 31, 2018 11:58 am

    Thank you for all work you have done through out the years. Watching the videos you shared and reading your journal brought tears to my eyes many times to see the dedication of OM to the Whooping Cranes. I am deeply saddened to know that OM will no longer exist, but I hope there is some way that you will continue to follow your passion and perhaps interact in some way with those of us who love Whooping Cranes.

  5. Carrie Miller August 31, 2018 10:10 am

    In the landscape of my memory, OM will forever grace the sky. My deep gratitude to all of you.