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By Margaret Black:

In the 1940's, Whooping Cranes were clinging to the very margins of existence.  Human encroachment and unregulated hunting, during the previous hundred years, had decimated their numbers.  By 1941, there were just fifteen individuals left on the planet.  This remnant population formed a single flock that wintered on the coast of Texas and migrated 4,000 kilometres north each spring, to nest on the Alberta-Northwest Territories border.  Conservationists realized that, if humans were to right a wrong and bring the Whooping Crane back from the brink of extinction, hunting and destruction of Whooping Crane habitat had to be stopped.  

In 1937, the state of Texas set aside the area where Whoopers winter, as a reserve for migratory birds.  In 1954, the Whooping Cranes' nesting grounds were discovered, in northern Canada, and conservationists began a concerted effort to breed Whooping Cranes in captivity, for release into the wild.  By 1960, the year I was born, some progress had been made; there were 33 Whooping Cranes in existence.  The year I turned seven, Canadians and Americans began working together to try to save the Whooping Crane.  Throughout my teen years, the extreme efforts of this joint working group, to bring back the tallest bird in North America, made the news on a regular basis.  By the time I was in my early twenties, this work was starting to bear real fruit.  When I was twenty-three, the media reported that Whooping Cranes had reached a significant milestone; their numbers had reached one hundred individuals.  

During the ensuing twenty five years, Canadians and Americans have continued to work together, to bring Whooping Crane numbers back to safe levels.  They have established several captive breeding facilities, worked to refine their chick-rearing techniques, continued to release birds into the western (migratory) flock, established a resident (non-migratory) flock in Florida and, perhaps most amazing of all, have developed a technology that has made the establishment of a second migratory flock possible, in the eastern half of the continent.  The reason for introducing Whoopers to two areas of North America, away from the traditional Texas-Northwest Territories migratory path, is to safeguard the species.  If there wasn't another wild population, located elsewhere, and an oil spill, storm or other such disaster was to hit the western flock, the entire wild population of Whooping Cranes could be wiped off the face of the planet in a single incident.  

On September 6, 2006, conservationists reported that Whooping Crane numbers had just reached the 500 mark!  Although Whoopers remain the most endangered species of crane on earth, and will not be "delisted" (taken off the endangered species list) for some time, it is apparent that, under the tender loving care of many dedicated organizations and individuals, Whooping Cranes are definitely on the way back!

The technology that has made the establishment of a new migration route possible is called "Ultralight-guided migration."  It was developed and refined by Bill Lishman, an artist, turned naturalist, from Port Perry, Ontario, Canada.  Like geese and swans, cranes learn migration routes from their parents.  When a species has become extirpated ("extinct" in a particular geographic area), there are no adult birds to remember the traditional migration route and pass it along to future generations.  This is where human ingenuity, in the form of Ultralight-guided migration, finds its conservation niche.  Mr. Lishman's technique of teaching juvenile birds a migration route, by training them to follow an Ultralight aircraft, has proven extremely successful. That is, after Mr. Lishman's team has escorted the birds south once, most of the birds are able to find their way back to the area where they were reared the following spring, on their own.  For the rest of their lives, these birds continue to migrate back and forth, along the route they were taught as juveniles, without any human support, and then they teach this migration route to their offspring.  Amazing!  

In 2001, Mr. Lishman's non-profit organization, called Operation Migration, joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several other government and non-profit organizations to teach juvenile Whooping Cranes to migrate between Wisconsin and Florida.  In the first five years of the program, sixty Whooping Cranes were taught the migration route, in this manner. 

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Interested in Learning More About the Whooping Crane's History?  

The following information comes from The Official Site of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the wildlife sanctuary, in Texas, where the western migratory population of Whooping Cranes over-winters:

Fossilized remains of Whooping Cranes date back several million years. Evidence from the Pleistocene Epoch shows that Whooping Cranes were once scattered throughout a much wider geographic range, extending from central Canada south to Mexico, and from Utah to the Atlantic coast. Early explorers and settlers recorded Whoopers in six Canadian provinces, 35 U.S. States and four Mexican States.  Biologists estimate that there were between 700 and 1,400 Whoopers alive in 1865. Their numbers dropped rapidly, however, and by 1890 the Whooping Crane had disappeared from the heart of its breeding range in the north central United States. By 1938, only two small flocks remained, one non-migratory flock in southwest Louisiana, and one migratory flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas. The migratory flock was reduced to 15 birds in 1941, with an additional six Whooping Cranes surviving in the Louisiana flock. By 1949, severe weather had decimated the Louisiana population, leaving only the small migratory flock. Whooping cranes were on the brink of extinction.

The two most important factors that contributed to the decline of Whooping Cranes were habitat loss and unregulated hunting. As European settlers expanded westward, they drained marshes and plowed prairies for agriculture, destroying much of the birds’ nesting habitat. Many remaining habitats were close to human disturbance, a stress to which this shy and secretive species was unable to adjust. As the number of Whooping Cranes declined, hunters, hobbyists and museum collectors scrambled to acquire the rare specimens and eggs for their collections.

Only one small flock of Whooping Cranes trod between survival and extinction. Ambitious recovery efforts were needed to save the species. Projects to protect this wild flock and to create new populations were put in motion and began the whooping cranes’ long journey to recovery.

Hope for the survival of Whooping Cranes was held in the lone wild flock that migrated from the wilderness of Canada to the Gulf coast of Texas each winter. Their wintering grounds were protected in 1937 with the creation of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. However, their breeding grounds, 2,500 miles to the north, remained a mystery until accidentally discovered in 1954 by a fire crew flying over Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

The discovery of the species’ only remaining breeding grounds opened new options to save these birds form extinction. Because Whooping Cranes lay two eggs per clutch but usually only raise a single chick, it was thought that one egg could be removed from each nest without decreasing the productivity of the wild flock. Egg collection occurred during 1967-1996. The eggs became the foundation for future release programs in North America.

The western 'remnant flock' has made a dramatic recovery, under conservation efforts. More than 210 whooping cranes now migrate between Canada and Texas.

Captive breeding efforts are taking place at the International Crane Foundation, Patuxent, and the Calgary and San Antonio Zoos. Captive breeding and reintroduction efforts have become possible with the development of better chick-rearing techniques.

In 1975, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Service began placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in Idaho. The Sandhill Cranes hatched and raised the Whooping Crane chicks, and the chicks learned the migration route from their surrogate parents. However, when the Whooping Crane chicks reached breeding age they did not pair with other Whooping Cranes. Instead, they pursued Sandhill Cranes as mates. The chicks had learned their species identity from their Sandhill Crane foster parents. This improper “imprinting” led the birds to identify with the wrong species. The project was terminated in 1989 and by 2002, no more Whooping Cranes remained in the region.

Reintroduction efforts for another new flock of whooping cranes began in 1993. Each year, several captive-reared Whooping Crane chicks are released in the Kissimmee Prairie region of Florida. This is a non-migratory population of Whooping Cranes that has not been taught a migration route.  As these reintroduced birds mature, crane pairs are forming and some pairs are defending territories, building nests and laying eggs. In 2002, a pair from this flock hatched and fledged the first wild Whooping Crane chick in the U.S. since 1939. Breeding success is expected to continue in coming seasons.

Another reintroduction effort, aimed at restoring a migratory flock of whooping cranes to eastern North America, began in 2001. This project falls under the jurisdiction of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), a team of non-profit and governmental organizations whose founding members include the International Crane Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Ontario, Canada-based Operation Migration, U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and many other dedicated partners.

Young chicks are being raised in wetlands during the summer, at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, in Wisconsin.  In the fall, Operation Migration leads the young cranes on migration with Ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, in Florida. The chicks learn the route during their first trip south. They are then able to make the return journey in the spring on their own. In October 2001, the first flock of reintroduced cranes departed Necedah NWR and began the 48-day 1,218-mile migration to Florida. The flock spent the winter on the Gulf coast of Florida at the Chassahowitzka NWR. The birds were monitored by biologists throughout the winter. The flock initiated spring migration, unaided by the Ultralight, on April 9, 2002. Their spring migration was comparatively swift (only 11 days from Florida to Wisconsin). Without the Ultralight, the cranes are able to fly more efficiently by riding thermals and soaring rather than expending energy flapping their wings to keep up with an airplane.

Recovery Plan Goals are to
1) Maintain a minimum of 40 nesting pairs in the Aransas–Wood Buffalo flock, and

2) Establish two additional separate, self-sustaining wild populations of whooping cranes, with a minimum of 25 nesting pairs each.

The long-term recovery goal for Whooping Cranes is to establish a self-sustaining population of a minimum of 1,000 Whooping Cranes in North America by the year 2035.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership's (WCEP) efforts towards this goal are to establish 25 breeding pairs from 125 birds released in the Eastern Migratory Flyway by 2020, with 18-20 chick introduction each year.

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