Operation Migration Resigns From WCEP – 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.

Share Button


  1. C.M. Sanger September 19, 2018 3:33 pm

    So sad, and unimaginable, thanks to the know-it-alls at the top that probably should not even be there.
    Thank you for your immense efforts to help this Species, I can only imagine the hard work that it took to start the organization up and keep it going, never faltering, never giving up…..through tears and laughter, thanks so much for giving us such a close up view of these birds and their continued survival efforts.
    I commend u from the bottom of my heart.

  2. Agneta Sand September 17, 2018 8:59 am

    Seems to me that the whole thing is about MONEY ! ! !
    Money is a human invention – as such it is flawed. Nature is not a human invention. We cannot possibly understand and try to change it. Does not matter if we agree with it – we are still part of it.
    Remember what Chief Seattle is supposed to have said in 1854:
    “We did not weave the web of life, we are merely strands in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

  3. K. Curless September 16, 2018 10:56 pm

    You did not do this work alone as your writing implies. Your work was important, but the process evolved to a more migration method.
    The international Crane Foundation began and carried out the research that helped save the species. The have been breeding and developing an understanding of habitat needs for over 25 years. They continue to that work today and it has resulted in over 710 birds now being in the flock.

    new techniques for incorporating young birds into the flock has been more successful in the birds returning from their migration safely. And being incorporated into the flock with new parents very successfully.

  4. Colleen Vernon September 16, 2018 5:22 am

    This is heartbreaking news as I have been a longtime fan and passionate admirer of your work to restore the cranes. It is another sad indication of failure of the current American government to honor our environment and the work of good people dedicated to protecting precious species. You have been such a positive force and will be sorely missed. Shame on USFWS! Love and blessings to you.

  5. Kerry Reynard September 15, 2018 5:30 pm

    ? We can be thankful for the results you folks did attain. 200 more cranes and flights over eastern US. God bless you, and the Whoopers.

  6. Steve Bozeman September 15, 2018 1:08 pm

    On your trips down south you and the cranes flew over properties my wife and I own in Pike County Alabama. I tried several times to witness the flights but was never successfull. However you and the cranes flying over Owen land gave me something to be proud of and to brag about. Hopefully one of these days in the future the flights will start again. Thank you and your organization for the work you did. You should be proud of your work.

  7. Samantha Sassone September 15, 2018 12:36 pm

    Your program and team are/was amazing and have inspired so many to care. You paved a path for conservation that touched millions and helped a crirically endangered species.
    And on a personal note, I saw Whooping Cranes in flight because of you. Real birds with my own eyes. Operation Migration is the reason I had that opportunity. Thank you so much.

  8. Ann Stevenson September 15, 2018 10:39 am

    ….thank you all for saving the whooping crane population in more ways than many of us know. You made a difference in our environment. I like thousands of others are sorry to see leave & appreciate the legacy you leave.

  9. Agneta Sand September 15, 2018 10:15 am

    This is a huge loss for all wildlife !
    Can you by any chance explain what happened ?
    I am sorry, but it sounds to me like people, who do not know much about the whooping cranes, are somehow being in charge of what you KNOW ! and you have to ‘fold’.
    Is MONEY once again taking over knowledge and common sense ?
    Just asking !

  10. Dora Giles September 15, 2018 10:09 am

    So sad this decision was made. Just hope that you (OM) can continue to work for this good cause in some other way. This goal is attainable but may just take a few more years. Slow I know. been some heartbreaking years, but overall, many happy things have occurred. Please keep all informed if a new – another- way is found to stay involved with the whooping cranes and their survival.

  11. Liz September 15, 2018 9:48 am

    So sorry to see this. I was going to make another contribution in memory of a relative. Thanks for all your organization did accomplish during its ‘lifetime’.

  12. Vivienne Rimoldi September 15, 2018 8:39 am

    This is very sad news. I am so sorry . Over the years I have enjoyed keeping up with your wonderful work and will miss you terribly. Hugs to all.

  13. Russell and Barbara Allison September 15, 2018 8:24 am

    I can not thank you wonderful people for the work you have done for so many years. I could not wait every day to see the progress you had done for these great birds. I was sad when a Crane died . I was thrilled when a group of Cranes landed in Florida. My fall days will be empty without reports of the Crane activity. God bless all of you.