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.

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  1. Dominique Elliott November 3, 2018 6:16 pm

    Much love to you and the crew. And thank you!

  2. Russell E. Allison November 1, 2018 4:10 pm

    Heather, It is so sad that you can not go on with such a great program. Barbara and I met all of you in Wisconsin and were so proud to do so. All of your work will not be forgotten. God knows you were doing good things and you will be blessed. Go Whoopers

    • Heather Ray November 2, 2018 12:01 pm

      Best to you and Barb <3

  3. David NaDell November 1, 2018 8:46 am

    Hi Heather , Sorry to see the end has come . Do you need any assistance in moving the remaining inventory ? Also wondering about the remaining trikes disposition ? Miss the times helping and just being part of something …

  4. Faye Pittman November 1, 2018 7:55 am

    You are like family to us craniacs; in fact I grieved as if a family member had passed and am still grieving. You all will forever be in my heart. Thanks for the ride ….. may it continue . . .

  5. Kate Crook November 1, 2018 5:59 am

    As I look at your list of achievements, not many other wildlife agencies have accomplished what you have. Your dedication helped us to want to help you and we become dedicated craniacs! Your efforts have opened many eyes to conservation of all species. Best wishes!

  6. JR October 31, 2018 4:37 pm

    Absolutely devastated to read this. Was actually checking this site today for ways to help this year. It was hard enough to learn 3 years ago that the flights would end. In many past years I’ve sponsored as able either as a mile-marker or other ways, including sending Scout troops to tour ICF and having them watch OpMigration videos. Your work can never loose its impact. You have affected thousands in the past quarter century with knowledge, awareness and involvement to assist saving these beautiful cranes and helping them thrive. We all will carry the story and the work forward in whatever means we can. God bless you and all you touched.

  7. Elsie Sealander October 31, 2018 3:35 pm

    It’s sad to see OM come to an end,but I want to send all the workers and volunteers this brief quote:
    “And suddenly you know
    It’s time to start something new
    and trust the magic of beginnings.”
    Meister Eckhart

  8. Teri Grus October 31, 2018 12:59 pm

    Crying as I read this – but grateful for all that you have accomplished over the years. I was proud to be able to sponsor “Mile Markers” to help whenever I could along the journey each year. Always looked forward to following the migration & the stories you all posted along the way. God speed to all the OM workers in your future endeavors. May the cranes continue to thrive despite the actions of us humans!

  9. Grandma October 31, 2018 11:14 am

    Through tears, all I can say is thank you to all the dedicated people whom spent years in this effort. You have educated many and hopefully it will help improve awareness of the importance of protecting our wildlife.
    Wishing everyone involved in OM the best in whatever endeavors you pursue next.

  10. Diana Hanson October 31, 2018 10:40 am

    My deepest gratitude for all that all of you have done. Those amazing birds will probably succeed in spite of some short sighted humans. What an incredible gift to see even just one of these magnificent creatures in the air in Wisconsin. Thank you, Diana Hanson

  11. home Susanne Shrader October 31, 2018 10:40 am

    Yes, you started out with a fantastic vision, and got partway there at least with your hard work and knowledge. I too am sorry to see it end. 25 years is a very good run, and you do have so much to be proud of. We will be apprehensive about the future of this crane specie. Whatever higher power may there be, the higher authority within this partnership has declared the experiment out of your hands. As someone once said, may the goddess be with you.