USFWS Would Ground the Ultralights?

As Operation Migration pilots moved an important step closer to a successful 2015 fall migration season today – leading their six cooperative whooping crane colts out of Wisconsin and on to Illinois – a co-partner with them in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) has made public its new vision for the partnership.

That vision seems to include a plan to end Operation Migration’s popular and highly visible ultralight-led migration in the near future.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asserting the ultralight program is no longer helping achieve the goal of a sustainable eastern whooping crane population. Joe Duff, the CEO of Operation Migration, has responded with a statement of his own and documentation for achievements which he says are being ignored by the Fish and Wildlife vision document.

GROUNDED? (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

GROUNDED?   (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

[Click on the images to enlarge them.]

I’ll post links here to Joe Duff’s documentation in defense of Aircraft Guided Migration, as well as to the USFWS vision statement. At the end of this post I’ll do my best to offer summarizing points for each of those.

Making a Five Year Plan for Whooping Cranes

But first, here’s a little more background about the emergence of the Fish and Wildlife vision statement, as well as the 5-year planning process, and a look at what happens next. The USFWS vision statement notes that we are approaching “the renewal of WCEP’s 5-year strategic plan . . .” and that the vision statement was drafted to provide guidance for the new 5-year plan.

Both the Fish & Wildlife Service and Operation Migration are among the founding partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP); both are among the most visible of the partners. As a reminder, in addition to OM and the USFWS, the founding partners include:

  • The International Crane Foundation
  • U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
  • U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
  • The International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.

According to Joe Duff, the USFWS claims no regulatory authority for the vision statement, but does want it to be the guiding document when all the partners meet in mid-January in the new year.

OM’s Rebuttal to the New USFWS Vision

Joe Duff makes a case that the Vision Statement that would eliminate his job is based on incomplete data, since it uses only population numbers from 2001 through 2010. And it ignores all the work done by WCEP from 2011 forward, he says. This includes establishing the new areas for whooping crane releases, and hopefully, for nesting, around Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, and the White River Marsh State Natural Area (an area now referred to by WCEP as “the Wisconsin Rectangle”).

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

WRONG? (Photo by ICF staff)

And it’s bad timing, said Joe Duff, since, “We are now on the cusp of determining if these cranes can successfully breed in the black-fly-free habitat of the Wisconsin Rectangle.”

He also criticized the lack of any published Population Viability Analysis conducted “for either the UL or the DAR methods that have been used to release birds,” but said that Operation Migration, using the WCEP database, and other records, has employed PVA techniques to evaluate the birds released in the Wisconsin Rectangle since 2011. He can show, he said, that Operation Migration has developed the most effective method to date in terms of survivability and a host of other factors.

Duff and Operation Migration hope you’ll sign their petition (or access it at the OM Facebook page) asking the USFWS to consider all their data.

Joe Duff also touched on the more than $10 million in private funding that Operation Migration has been able to raise to help establish the EMP. ” . . . more than any other WCEP partner,” he said. “These are privately sourced funds that are not transferable to other projects and do not impinge on the fundraising efforts of other partners.”

What’s In the USFWS Vision for the Eastern Migratory Population?

*The “Vision Statement” of the Fish and Wildlife Service is a mixed bag of thin praise for the “many successful aspects of the reintroduction,” and long paragraphs defining strategies tried and not yet tried, and uncertainty about the population’s probability of meeting its number one objective: becoming self-sustaining.

There is also significant criticism of the captive-rearing techniques – for rearing whooping cranes that haven’t adapted as well to the wild, as USFWS believes they might. These techniques have been used for years at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, as well as Necedah and Horicon wildlife refuges and White River Marsh in Wisconsin, and also by both OM, and the International Crane Foundation.

MORE? (Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

(Photo, Courtesy WCEP)

And there is a much lamenting about “the population’s low reproductive success.”  That’s not hard to understand, as it is beginning to look like establishing a population of migratory whooping cranes in the wild, in Wisconsin, using captive-bred chicks, has been the “easy” part. (And I’m sure that’s relatively speaking.) Helping the population to fulfill that “number one objective,” and sustain itself . . . that’s the apparently insoluble puzzle that continues to haunt all who work with these whoopers.

And yet, to those of us watching from the craniac gallery it does feel like we are seeing instances of increasingly mature pairs successfully nesting, instances of perfect crane parents, instances of hope, like the great leap forward in the number of chicks hatched during the 2015 nesting season. It feels like these Wisconsin whoopers are so close! Could they perhaps, just need a little more time and human support?

Unfortunately, I don’t see much in the Vision Statement that deals with that kind of question. Or such hopes. But it does seem like everyone agrees that WCEP’s new five-year plan is still a work-in-progress.

2 thoughts on “USFWS Would Ground the Ultralights?

  1. Me too, Corriene. I can see making adjustments to plans, and the need for real studies of how things are working, but I’m puzzled by the USFWS document coming out with so much negativity toward programs – both the ultralight and the costume-rearing techniques – long embraced by the WCEP partnership.

    Thank you for reading and commenting – Much appreciated!

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