Guest Author: Tom Stehn, Retired whooping crane coordinator - formerly at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
The recent Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the State was not liable for the whooping crane deaths in the 2008-09 winter is a blow to whooping crane recovery, but also has wider impacts. The ruling potentially impacts the health of the Guadalupe River and the bays that rely on river inflows to be productive.
In my opinion, the court’s reasoning was at least partially flawed. The court concluded that the death of the 23 whooping cranes (8.5% of the flock) in the 2008-09 winter was a rare convergence of unforeseeable, unique events, a perfect storm scenario, that is unlikely to imminently happen again. Data that I collected in my 29 years at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge indicated that whooping crane die-offs have happened before. For example, 11 whooping cranes (7.5% of the flock) had died in the 1990-91 winter when marsh salinities had been extremely high. Back then, we didn’t know enough to make the connection between river inflows, blue crabs, and whooping crane health. That connection was fully demonstrated in the recent court case, and the court ruling did not throw out that linkage. More recently, I believe crane mortality was also unusually high in the 2011-12 winter, but that data was not collected after my retirement due to a change in the aerial method of counting the cranes where only a portion of the flock is surveyed and mortality is not documented. Future crane die-offs related to drought and insufficient inflows are foreseeable and will continue to occur.
The need to provide sufficient river inflows to keep our bays productive is just one of the issues facing the whooping crane population. With the ongoing sea level rise forecast to reach more than 3 feet by the end of the century, all of the current whooping crane marshes will become too deep for the whooping cranes to use. Also, as the climate warms and we no longer get sustained hard freezes, black mangrove, normally killed by cold weather is moving north and will likely become the dominant plant over the entire Texas coast, replacing plants such as Carolina wolfberry that whoopers feed upon heavily every fall. A species that loses its habitat is in for hard times. The picture is also alarming in the crane’s migration corridor, where decreased rainfall amounts are expected to dry up stopover wetlands, and thousands of wind turbines and associated power lines are being built right next to whooping crane wetlands. And illegal shootings of Aransas whooping cranes is still occurring; note the two instances of radio-tagged birds found dead in the last few winters. Now is not the time for the Court to negate measures that would help the whooping crane.
For the whooping crane to survive, people need to remain vigilant and continue working to help the species. Yes, providing the needed inflows to keep our bays healthy and provide the crabs and wolfberries that the whooping cranes need to survive may very well mean people will have to become better water conservationists, but South Texans should be willing to support that choice. Just observe the stream of cars late Friday afternoons pouring into the Coastal Bend for a weekend of fishing and nature appreciation. If you want to see lots of birds and like to catch fish in San Antonio and Aransas Bays that both rely on river inflows, you should be disturbed by the court ruling.
As stated perfectly in the Caller-Times editorial of July 2nd, I totally agree that the state of Texas “needs to develop a management plan in the birds’ best interest and enforce it”. So far, Texas water managers and legislators have failed to provide minimum conservation flows essential for our priceless Texas rivers and bays. To comply with the Endangered Species Act, the Guadalupe-Blanco River authority should voluntarily write a Habitat Conservation Plan for the whooping crane to provide the necessary inflows. If the GBRA had been willing to do this, litigation would not have been needed in the first place since that had been the main judgment The Aransas Project had asked for in the litigation. In summary, without a change of direction, how can we expect our bays and whooping cranes to remain healthy when new water rights continue to be granted from the Guadalupe River that many conservationists feel is already over-appropriated?