Summary: Whooping Crane Recovery Activities
April - September 2006
by Tom Stehn,
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
Dr. Jane Goodall visits Operation Migration at its camp on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to see the Whooping cranes. Recovery Team member Dr. George Archibald receives the Indianapolis Heroes of Animal Conservation award.
ARANSAS – WOOD BUFFALO FLOCK
On April 12th at Aransas, one chick was observed all by itself on its parents’ territory on San Jose Island . Whooping crane juveniles normally separate from their parents either shortly after arrival on the nesting grounds, en route in the northern parts of the migration, or occasionally separate at Aransas. Presumably the parents started the migration and the juvenile had no idea what was going on or perhaps just wasn’t quite ready to migrate, so it stayed behind. The juvenile migrated later on and presumably returned to the Canadian nesting grounds. It probably showed up on its parent’s nesting territory, but would have been driven off by the parents who will not tolerate last year’s chick.
Wood Buffalo National Park , Canada
The good news from the nesting grounds continued into the summer. In mid-August, Brian and Lea found a record for August of 47 young at fledging age, including 7 sets of twins. Previously, the highest number of chicks found in August had been 39. The August aerial surveys were conducted when the juveniles are close to fledging. Survival of fledged chicks is usually quite good, although losses of chicks from twin families still seems to happen frequently. As many as 40 juveniles may make it to Aransas this fall. If adult mortality is about average, there should be 230+ Whooping cranes in the flock in the 2006-07 winter, surpassing the record high of 220 present in the 2005-06 winter. This increase of the population is anticipated since it is in the growth portion of the 10-year population cycle that has occurred during the middle of every decade. However, I had also predicted the population would reach 230 last winter, but the higher than average loss of 25 adult birds between spring and fall, 2005 had kept the population from a sizable increase.
Platte River , Nebraska
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
Save Cedar Bayou, Inc. continued efforts to get Cedar Bayou dredged that serves as a connection between Critical Habitat and the Gulf of Mexico . The bayou re-opened several years ago by a tropical storm has remained open but flows are reduced from siltation. An ongoing engineering study for the dredging entered Phase II to provide engineering specifications and permits for the work. A preliminary meeting was held in May with USFWS and other agencies regarding permits.
Water Issues in Texas
The court ordered the SMRF water rights application to be re-considered by TCEQ. SMRF was very pleased with the final order and considered this order a good step forward in their effort to make sure that rivers, bays and estuaries have enough water left in them to remain healthy. The court order was subsequently appealed by the Attorney General's office for TCEQ seeking to overturn the earlier decision. TCEQ is saying once again that they do not have the authority to issue water rights to leave water in the river, and they are further delaying the process.
The drought in central Texas continued in 2006, with Stage 1 water use restrictions implemented early in the summer and stage 2 restrictions taking effect in many cities and towns in September.
Articles appear almost daily in San Antonio news papers about the water supply. Battles are ongoing over allowable pumping levels from the Edwards Aquifer including impacts to freshwater springs that support several endangered species. Current zoning restrictions limiting what percentage of each piece of land must remain undeveloped to allow re-charge of the aquifer continue to be discussed. Large projects with reservoirs to supply the San Antonio area with additional water from Texas rivers, both from the Guadalupe and Colorado Rivers are being pursued. Water issues are quite chaotic, with human population growth threatening to push up against a limited natural resource.
In contrast to the drought in the center of the state, the Texas coast received above average rainfall. Freshwater swales at Aransas Refuge remained full most of the summer. Thus, although freshwater inflows were presumably below average due to the drought in the watershed, coastal rains presumably helped out and hopefully maintained the productivity of the bays. The coastal rains were substantial. During one period, Aransas Pass , Texas received rain on 9 consecutive days totaling 12.8 inches. Rockport was pictured on the Weather Channel because of flooding in the downtown, deep enough that some of the streets were impassable for about 24-hours.
At Aransas, the USFWS Ecological Services office in Corpus Christi completed a non-jeopardy biology opinion for the proposed housing development near Port O’Connor called “The Sanctuary”. Construction on this 776- house canal lot subdivision is expected to begin shortly on a 680-acre tract. Whooping cranes had occasionally been documented using this property. As other developments arise, my concern is that upland habitat needed by cranes during periods of food shortage will no longer be available, and disturbance will prevent the cranes from using marshes adjacent to the development. To balance out these expected impacts, the developer is providing $200,000 to be used for protecting other lands near crane areas and will establish conservation easements on wetland areas (209 acres) on two sides of the development, including 65 acres that will be developed as wetlands.
A second canal lot housing development is proposed on a property that includes some Whooping crane critical habitat adjacent to the Whooping crane use area at Welder Flats. To try to protect needed habitat, the Texas Nature Conservancy working closely with USFW has applied for a 1.5 million dollar grant from the Coastal Impacts Assistance Program (CIAP) to protect 5,000 acres of crane habitat in the next 3 years primarily through purchase of conservation easements. About one third of the wintering Whooping crane flock currently winters on private lands. Some of these lands are threatened with housing developments right up to the edge of marshes used by cranes. It is essential that suitable buffers be established to limit human disturbance to the cranes, give them upland areas to use for additional foraging areas in times of food shortage, and provide them fresh water to drink in upland ponds when salinities in the marsh become extreme. Efforts to protect needed lands must begin immediately. The CIAP grant would be an excellent first step. Some matching money is available from the “Sanctuary” housing development agreement as well as the potential for other small pots of money through other USFWS-Ecological Services activities to strengthen the CIAP grant application.
Oil and Gas
A second company wanting to do seismic work on the southern parts of Lamar Peninsula that would have overlapped portions of the project described above withdrew their permit application as they ran into the deadline for completing the work prior to the arrival of the Whooping cranes.
This summer, additional natural gas wells were drilled adjacent to crane areas on Matagorda Island , the second year in a row for drilling. An application is expected from a company next summer wanting to drill down to 20,000 feet to recover natural gas. Drilling to this depth will make it difficult to complete the work during the time period when the cranes are in Canada , so some kind of compromise will have to be reached.
National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR)
The Recovery Plan is currently being routed for signature, while the MOU will have to undergo additional review by departments in Washington.
In August, leading crane conservationist Dr. George Archibald was honored to receive the Indianapolis Zoo’s Heroes of Animal Conservation award, the largest international monetary award of 100 K given to an individual for conservation of a single animal species. Archibald's work and dedication for more than 30 years of dedication to saving endangered crane species includes everything from dancing with human-reared cranes to enhance fertilization to promoting a program to reestablish a migratory flock of Whooping Cranes in eastern North America . We are proud to have Dr. Archibald as a member of the Whooping Crane Recovery Team on which he has served for many years.
Two new members appointed to the Whooping Crane Recovery team are Marty Folk of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Dr. Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of the Platte River Whooping Crane Habitat Trust. They take the chairs previously filled by Steve Nesbitt and Dr. Julie Langenberg.
The next Whooping Crane Recovery Team meeting will be held Feb. 1-2 in Lafayette , Louisiana . There will be crane meetings all that week. The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) will meet Jan. 29-30, a field trip to White Lake will take place on Jan. 31st, followed by the recovery team meeting. The Whooping Crane Conservation Association will have their meeting the afternoon of Feb. 2nd while the Recovery Team meets in closed session. A field trip to Marsh Island will take place on Saturday, Feb. 3. Come join us and become a “craniac” that week. Louisiana hospitality is guaranteed!
The North American Crane Working Group (NACWG) has decided to hold the next crane workshop in the fall of either 2008 or 2009 in Wisconsin . The meetings will be timed so that attendees should be able to see juvenile Whooping cranes being flown behind ultralights, visit Sandhill crane research sites conducted by ICF, and attend the Crane Festival held every fall at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).
FLORIDA NONMIGRATORY POPULATION
(* = ties a record, ** = breaks a record).
The production of 4 fledglings was unexpected since conditions were dry with fires in many parts of Florida in May. Rainfall since January was below normal. Wetlands were nearly dry--water levels were approaching the level seen during the Great Drought--when, in 2000, all wetlands in central Florida dried up. So, how did 4 chicks fledge in this drought year?
Marty Folk writes:
One adult female Whooping crane was captured and held in a pen at Kanapaha Prairie pen near Gainesville to stop its interference with another nesting pair. Unfortunately, the penned bird was killed by an alligator in early June just prior to when the team was going to release her with the nesting season over and the other pair’s chick just about fledged.
EASTERN MIGRATORY POPULATION
From a Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership news release:
"This is a long awaited moment," said Signe Holtz, director of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' Bureau of Endangered Resources, "the success of this effort sets a goal for endangered species recovery efforts everywhere. The partnership of public, private and government organizations that has made this possible shows what can be done when we all pull together with a common goal in sight. These chicks have a long and dangerous road ahead of them, but with luck we'll see them wing south with their parents this fall."
In all, 5 Whooping crane pairs nested in Wisconsin . All nests were abandoned for unknown reasons prior to hatching of the eggs. It is a priority to try to learn why the pairs abandoned their nests. For next year, 3 sets of video equipment have been purchased to monitor nests to see what factors are involved in abandonment. Predation, lack of food in nearby marshes, and inexperience of the parents are potential factors. Two eggs picked up from one abandoned nest were taken to the International Crane Foundation, and later flown to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland where both hatched. Although one of the chicks developed leg problems and had to be euthanized, the other chick successfully graduated from the ultralight training program, was flown back to Wisconsin , and will migrate this fall behind the ultralights.
At the Necedah NWR, one pair re-nested, stuck with it, and successfully hatched two chicks. The chicks grew quickly and both fledged. However, shortly before fledging, one of the chicks started spending time up to 0.25 miles apart from the parents, behavior never observed in twin Whooping crane families in Canada . Post-fledging, one of the chicks disappeared and is listed as “missing” and may be dead. In general, crane parents only occasionally are able to raise two chicks.
Bird movements were monitored intensively throughout the spring and summer. In the spring, 2 wayward birds were captured in New York and 1 in Michigan and returned to central Wisconsin . Especially in the early years of a reintroduction, it is felt very important to try to concentrate birds in the core release area to promote breeding. Windway Capital, Inc. graciously supplied aircraft to transport project personnel to these other states who usually were able to capture the birds and return by aircraft to Wisconsin on the same day. Capture attempts on some of the other birds were unsuccessful. The summer distribution of birds included 60 in Wisconsin and 3 in Michigan . A few birds wandered to Iowa or Minnesota in both the spring and fall.
In 2006, captive-hatched birds were raised for the ultralight (n=18) and direct autumn release (DAR) (n=7) projects. Early training for the ultralight project is conducted at Patuxent, with the birds subsequently flown to Wisconsin in several groups by Windway Capital, Inc. Flight training continues throughout the summer at Necedah NWR. Chicks for the DAR program are hatched at the International Crane Foundation and later transported to Necedah. This reintroduction method releases isolation-reared chicks into groups of older Whooping cranes or Sandhill cranes in the fall with the juveniles following older cranes to the wintering grounds in Florida or other southeastern states in the crane flyway. Two of the chicks had hock rotation problems and were pulled from the DAR release program. These 2 cranes were shipped to the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida and will be placed on display in an exhibit featuring native Florida wildlife. The Whooping crane captive site committee did an assessment of the Jacksonville facility to ensure the cranes will receive good care and that their facilities can be modified to provide a suitable home for the cranes. Jacksonville is very happy to be receiving the birds and is glad to continue to support the project. Last fall, personnel from the Zoo helped construct the Whooping crane holding pen at Halpata Tastanaki Preserve where the ultralight cranes resided for several weeks before they were flown on to Chassahowitzka NWR.
A draft management plan for the Whooping Crane has been prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This document includes information on the migration corridor and wintering areas and thus has application for the entire eastern migratory population.
The Wisconsin DNR has also developed a Whooping crane monitoring database that interfaces with GIS data and Natural Heritage Inventory information on state, federal and private lands. Plans are to compose maps of Whooping crane habitat and land use, develop specialized data summaries and other GIS products to support the Whooping Crane Management Plan.
Outreach activities continued and are an important part of the reintroduction. A film produced by Operation Migration entitled "Bringing Back the Cranes" was a finalist in May at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula , Montana.
Famous biologist Jane Goodall visited Operation Migration at its camp on the Necedah NWR in September, was given a ride in an ultralight during a training flight, and was dressed in a crane costume and got to work with the birds, herding them into the pens and getting a close-up look. Dr. Goodall was as thrilled to see the cranes and efforts to reintroduce them back into eastern North America as project personnel were to meet her. She is a marvelous lady and continues to promote conservation world-wide with her inspirational message.
The annual fall meeting of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) was held September 18-20. This is an important opportunity for project personnel from all the different partners to meet in person and plan future actions.
The breeding season began with a disastrous snowstorm at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center during which some of the cranes escaped and over 100 pens were damaged. Patuxent scraped together funds and rallied help from all around the area to make repairs. The personal dedication and commitment of all involved in this operation was outstanding. Within one month, all the pens were repaired and re-designed so that netting can be lowered in future when heavy snows fall. The disturbance to the cranes delayed the breeding season by about a month, with the first egg laid on April 10th. Overall production was about average. The quick actions of all involved had prevented a disaster. We are so grateful for what Patuxent achieved.
Kathy O’Malley decided to leave her job at Patuxent and take a job with the Department of Agriculture. Kathy has been the "chick mama" for approximately 21 years at Patuxent, so she is going to be missed. Thanks Kathy for all those long hours and nights caring for hatchlings and inducing them to take their first bites of food!
Calgary had their best production season ever. Now in their second full year using artificial insemination techniques, egg fertility rose dramatically and flock manager Dwight Knapik made 3 trips across the border carrying 12 eggs for the reintroduction programs, 8 of which hatched. Finding funding for these flights was difficult and had to come from different sources including the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Calgary Zoo, and other donated funds. Permit issues kept Pam Pritchard of the Calgary Zoo and I fully occupied in the spring. The most difficult thing I have to deal with annually involves the international shipment of endangered species. Approximately 7 permits are needed for each shipment, materials have to be inspected by Customs, USFWS and USDA, and everything has to be timed perfectly. Whooping crane blood samples from some of the chicks were imported in September to Therion Labs in Saratoga Springs , New York for paternity testing. The permit process was again very difficult with probably over 100 person-hours spent to coordinate the shipment. FedEx failed to clear the package with USFWS in Memphis and lost the original of the Canadian export permit. This created a storm of communications during the shipment process and added additional complexity. This bureaucratic process needs to be simplified!
In the spring, approximately 26 eggs in 7 shipments were carried in suitcase incubators between facilities to try to meet numerical targets for the ultralight and direct autumn release projects. Shipments involved flights from the International Crane Foundation (ICF), the Calgary zoo, and Species Survival Center in New Orleans to Patuxent. Additional egg shipments occurred between Patuxent and Calgary to ICF. The egg shipments are carefully orchestrated to meet numerical targets and also try to have similar aged chicks for each of the reintroduction projects. Flock managers talked on weekly conference calls throughout the spring with the USFWS Whooping crane coordinator to plan all these shipments. A major need of the recovery program is to get dedicated funding for these flights; right now each facility is scraping the bottom of the barrel to get flights either donated or paid for.
ICF shipped 4 cranes to Patuxent on April 10th to open up pen space and provide suitable mates for some of the young cranes at Patuxent. They also shipped 3 cranes to the San Antonio Zoo to free up more pens for the 2006 chicks. A chick was hatched at the Amoco Whooping crane exhibit at ICF and provided great viewing for the public all summer. The chick has valuable genetics and will be kept in captivity as a future breeder.
One crane was shipped from Patuxent to Homosassa Springs , Florida on May 16th. After a long day in a crate, the crane named “Rocky” entered his new pen on slightly wobbly legs and immediately drank. He was readily foraging on smelt the next day and adjusted well to his new home. Rocky will be paired with a female already on exhibit at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
The new Whooping crane facility at the Freeport McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center (SSC) in New Orleans is nearly finished. Five new “double” pens with large ponds have been constructed. Great dedication has been shown by personnel at SSC considering all the hardships they have faced in New Orleans in the past year post-Katrina.
On September 21-22, a genetics summit was held for flock mangers and support personnel at ICF led by geneticist Dr. Ken Jones from Kansas State University . The product of this effort was a methodology worked out to create a new breeding chart for the entire flock that will provide better information to create the proper pairings to maximize the preservation of the genetic material in captivity. This new chart was produced by Ken in October and distributed to the flock managers. Decisions will be made as needed involving specific pairings, artificial insemination pairings, and shipments of birds between facilities. Decisions will hopefully be finalized in February at the upcoming recovery team meeting. Special thanks go to Ken who donated his time to this effort and has made a huge difference in the genetic management of the captive and reintroduced flocks over the last 10 years.
A The population of the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock in the spring, 2006 was 214. A record47 chicks in mid-August have survived from the record 76 chicks and 62 nests found in June. These chicks are not listed above since a total population count cannot be done during the summer and it is not known what adult mortality has occurred. If adult mortality between spring and fall is about average, there should be 230+ Whooping cranes at Aransas in the 2006-07 winter.
B This number is an estimate since not all Whooping cranes in Florida can be located on a regular basis. Four chicks fledged in the wild in 2006. Birds routinely monitored include 46 adults and 4 chicks.
C One pair hatched twin chicks, the first Whooping cranes to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in over 100 years. One of the chicks listed above is “missing” and may have died. An additional 23 captive-reared young are at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin and are expected to be reintroduced into the wild starting in fall, 2006.
* Numbers are of young remaining at the captive centers after eggs and/or birds were shipped out for reintroductions in 2006. In most cases, these young are genetically valuable and will become future captive breeding stock.
TOTALS (Wild + Captive) 354 + 145= 499
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