A Status Update on Wisconsin’s Whooping Cranes in Transition

What’s new with the Eastern Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes at the end of the summer of 2016?

At least 90 whooping cranes had been confirmed in Wisconsin by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership as of August 1st. Four EMP birds were in Illinois, one was in Michigan, and the location of five other EMP birds is not confirmed, making for a maximum population size of 100 individual birds.

Nesting season this year was a now familiar pattern of some very good news, but not enough. There were many nests (46 total, by 29 pairs) some black fly abandonment early, followed by renests, a lot of chicks hatched (23), but only 2 or 3 survived to fledge. As of September, only one wild chick, #w7-16, survives. It was captured and banded on September 1st.

The Summer of Transition

The biggest news for the EMP this summer is its transition away from human intervention — human caretakers in costumes training newly hatched captive-bred chicks for eventual release into the wild  — in favor of using adult parent cranes in the captive population in all interactions with the new chicks. This means a decided shift away from costume-rearing of cranes, and also, that there will be no more ultralight-guided first migrations by the Operation Migration team.

Nonetheless, the work that began in 2001 with 20 captive-bred, costume-reared, ultralight-led whooper chicks, will continue. And publicized commitments from the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) and key founding partners are reassuring that the partnership remains in tact.

This USFWS photo of an Operation Migration ultralight and young whooping crane chicks, is the human-chick interaction that is no longer approved.

This USFWS photo of an Operation Migration ultralight and young whooping crane chicks, is the human-chick interaction that is no longer approved.

But why exactly is the changing focus necessary?

By now, I’m certain that everyone who follows this chapter of the whooping cranes’ story knows the ultralight flights have been stopped. And that adult cranes will be used to teach migratory behavior. But here is the story behind those facts, to the best of my knowledge, with links to official documents that explain it too.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is the WCEP partner legally responsible for implementing the Endangered Species Act, and for a number of years now, it seems to have been focused on only one aspect of the Eastern Migratory Population – what they identify as its “critical lack of reproductive success.” USFWS staff involved in the whooping crane reintroduction believe that less human-intervention in the rearing and releasing of captive-bred chicks into the EMP could solve this problem. Here is the USFWS statement affirming its continued commitment to the Eastern Migratory whooping cranes.

At a meeting of all the partners, convened in January of this year, the USFWS decision to discontinue the ultralight-led migration was accepted. Although the partners did not vote on it, an agreement to shift the focus to “more natural methods” was reached through “a collaborative process that engaged all the partners.”

Will Poor Reproduction be Solved?

While reproduction of chicks in the wild remains a tough obstacle blocking, for now, the EMP’s path to becoming a sustainable population, many previous goals for this population have been successfully met, as this fact sheet from the International Crane Foundation makes clear. The population has grown to 100 wild birds, they successfully migrate to the southern U.S., and return to nest in Wisconsin, and the number and locations of nests is growing.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

A USFWS photo of a whooping crane pair with two tiny chicks at Necedah NWR in 2010.

The shift in focus now requested by USFWS is only possible, reminds the International Crane Foundation fact sheet, “because of the great success of the program thus far.” It further affirms, “WCEP can meet this challenge,” and that ICF is committed to being a leader in the work to come.

What’s Next?

Next week The Badger & the Whooping Crane will report on what the actual shift from human-mentors to adult crane guides is looking like at this point in time, and how Operation Migration’s role is shifting from ultralight leading, to monitoring and managing the EMP in the field. Before that, though, a report on the whoopers of 2015.

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