Eagles Soar in Wisconsin Thanks to Endangered Species Act

Here are four good examples of why people seem to love the Endangered Species Act:

the Bald eagle – an enduring symbol of the U.S. of  A.;

the Louisiana Black bear – which long ago provided the inspiration for the toy “teddy bear;”

the magnificent Humpback whale, which can still be found in all the oceans of the world;

and the West Indian manatees, and a subspecies, the Florida manatees, found along the coasts of the southeastern U. S. states, seeking particularly warm water sites in the winter months.

In spite of such conservation successes – which have occurred with the assistance of the Endangered Species Act – that law itself is now in danger. Many of the elected Republican leaders who control the U.S. Congress are eager “to modernize” the law, in ways that its supporters believe will weaken it significantly. Some in Congress propose outright repeal to curb what they see as its abuses. One of them, Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, said the E.S.A. has “been hijacked.”

A Bald eagle, in Wisconsin. (WI DNR photo, by Brian Hansen)

Bishop, who is the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, says in his opinion, the law “. . . has never been used for the rehabilitation of the species. It’s been used to control the land.  We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act.”   

Is it possible he just doesn’t understand what the law does, or how it helps species survive? Its stated purpose is to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend.” (Emphasis added.) There is no question that this takes work and dedication from both public servants and  private citizens, alike. But the public’s willingness to support such work, by high margins, has been borne out in repeated polls and surveys over the years. (More about these polls, coming in a future post.)

A manatee cow and her calf. (USFWS photo, by Keith Ramos)

Let’s look at some more facts about those “conservation successes” listed above. Here’s the briefest of histories of the ESA’s benefit to those four species :  The Bald Eagle, the West Indian Manatee, and the Humpback Whale were all declared endangered under the predecessor of the current law: the eagle and manatee in 1967 and the whale in 1970.  The Louisiana Black bear was declared endangered in 1992.

A USFWS employee with an armful of four Louisiana Black bear cubs. (USFWS photo)

The Bald eagle was delisted in 2007 (considered “recovered” from near-extinction), the Louisiana Black bear and the majority of the Humpback Whale species, in 2016.  The West Indian Manatee was proposed for down-listing from “endangered “to “threatened” in 2016; a final decision on this is expected any day.

Now, let’s look a little deeper into the facts surrounding the decline and recovery of one particular species – the Bald Eagle. According to this US Fish & Wildlife Service fact sheet, when America was a new nation there may have been as many as 100,000 nesting pairs of Bald eagles. In 1963 only 487 pairs could be confirmed.

Not long ago the bald eagle, a beloved symbol of America, was an endangered species. (USFWS photo)

When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 the species was in danger of extinction throughout most of its range  (which includes the entire North American continent). But worries about the species’ continued existence were already well-established by 1940 when the The Bald Eagle Protection Act was passed. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the plight of the eagle continued to worsen until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring exposed the dangers of widespread use of the pesticide DDT, and further research revealed that this chemical interfered with eagles’ ability to produce strong eggshells and hatch their young.

In 1972, the two-year old Environmental Protection Agency took the historic and, at that time, controversial step of banning use of DDT in the U.S. With that, and the legal protections that banned shooting and established habitat management for the species, the bald eagles began their “remarkable rebound.”  When the species was delisted in 2007, the number of nesting pairs had climbed to near 10,000.

In Wisconsin, where we now celebrate and support the endangered species within our state by purchasing a special series of endangered resources license plates,there were only 100 nesting pairs of eagles in the early 1970s. By contrast, over 1,000 nests have been counted every year since 2005; the count for 2016, was a record high of 1504. Federal funds, allotted to Wisconsin through the Endangered Species Act, combined with state funds have made it possible for the state to conduct 44 years of nest surveys. Wisconsin’s is one of the longest-running nest surveys in the country.

These involve April aerial surveys of the state to locate nests, return flights in May or June to check on nest success followed by, in some cases, some very hands-on work to band eaglets and do health assessments. Among other benefits, knowledge gained from the survey enables the DNR to give up-to-date information to landowners, companies, and communities that have an active nest on their property, so that the nest remains undisturbed throughout breeding season.

And that is a pretty good picture of The Endangered Species Act at work for eagles:  looking for nests, monitoring the nests once discovered, educating land owners to the presence of an active nest on their property, and educating the general public about the whole process.

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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)

MORE?
(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.

Where the Birds Are: Various Whooping Crane Populations Explained

When we speak or write about whooping cranes it’s always good to know which population of the  whoopers we’re referring to. Although there are only a small number of these big, wonderful North American birds alive today (approximately 400 in the wild, and near 200 in captivity), they are spread across a variety of habitats and locations.

Some are divided among 3 captive populations, and others are in groups designated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as “non-essential experimental populations.” And 250, or more, are in the one and only self-sustaining wild flock.

So you can see, when discussing whooping crane news, it’s helpful to know which of these groups of cranes is the one from whence the news is coming. Here at The Badger and the Whooping Crane, we’re most interested, naturally, in what’s happening with the whooping cranes that migrate from Wisconsin to Florida. Known affectionately at this blog as “our cranes”, or the “Wisconsin cranes,” their official designation is the tongue twister “non-essential, experimental Eastern Migratory Population (or, to simplify,  the EMP). Responsibility for the EMP cranes falls to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, written about here earlier.

An adult whooping crane pair in the Eastern Migratory Population (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP)

An adult whooping crane pair that live within the captive population at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. (Photo by Joel Trick, used courtesy of WCEP

But the EMP cranes – “our cranes” – are just one part of the bigger picture for the whooping crane story, and a post clarifying the various populations seems overdue. So what follows is a description of each one – population by population.

The Wild Ones

Each whooping crane in existence today is derived from the one self-sustaining wild flock – which has been brought back, literally, from the brink. The birds in this population migrate between Canada’s Wood-Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, and the Texas Gulf Coast, crossing the international border twice each year.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane.  (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to protect critical habitat for the endangered whooping crane. (Photo courtesy USFWS: Aransas NWR page: multimedia galleries)

This flock reached its historic low point during the winter of 1940-41 when only 15 birds were counted. Public education campaigns and conservation efforts intensified after that, and the numbers have crept back up – at a snail’s pace, but consistently upwards.

A long history of close cooperation between the wildlife agencies in both countries gets a lot of the credit for keeping the species alive.

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada where he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer.  (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

A photo of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada wheret he only self-sustaining natural flock of whooping cranes nests each summer. (Photo courtesy citizenshift.org)

My source for the historical data on this Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock, and for the next section on Captive Breeding is a “Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” (Curt Meine and George Archibald, 1996).  It’s online at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center; you can also access it through a link on the International Crane Foundation’s whooping crane page.

Captive Whooping Crane Populations

A new tool was added to the efforts to help the whooping crane species survive in 1967 when a captive breeding program was put in place at the USFWS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.  The Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cooperated to remove single eggs from the nests of wild cranes (nests usually contain two eggs) on their Wood Buffalo NP breeding grounds and transfer them to Patuxent for hatching and raising.

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

This tray of whooper eggs has just come out of the incubator. The eggs will be examined, candled, and weighed to see how their development is progressing. Eggs lose weight during incubation as the chicks grow and use up yolk and fluid. But if an egg loses too much weight too quickly, it can be helped by special treatments or placed in a separate incubator that has a higher humidity level. (Photo by Nelson Beyer, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center)

By 1975 the cranes that had hatched from the collected eggs, had begun to produce their own first eggs. In 1989 the captive breeding program was expanded to include the International Crane Foundation and in 1992 it expanded to the Calgary Zoo.

Today Patuxent and ICF remain the primary centers of captive breeding. The most recent numbers I could find, are from The Journey North website, dated August 30, 2011, which lists 75 whooping cranes in the captive population at Patuxent, including 15 breeding pair, and 37 cranes at ICF with 11 breeding pair.  Six breeding pair are listed at the Devonian  Wildlife conservation Center in Calgary, and there were also 1 breeding pair at the San Antonio Zoo, and 2 at the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.

 USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft. (Paul K. Cascio  photographer          USGS Multimedia Gallery)

USGS employee training baby whooping cranes to follow ultralight aircraft.
(Paul K. Cascio photographer USGS Multimedia Gallery)

The Experimental Populations

Once the captive breeding programs were well-established, the efforts for preservation of the whooping crane species shifted into a new gear.  The focus became all about restoring some of the captive-raised chicks into the wild.  But how?

Much thinking and experimentation has gone into these efforts. In their 1996 report (linked to above) Archibald and Meine wrote, “Teaching migration to young whooping cranes continues to be the most significant barrier . . .” to reestablishing whooping cranes in the wild.

Since then the method of leading an annual class of crane chicks from Wisconsin to Florida via ultralight aircraft has been perfected, and has become a major factor in building an Eastern Migratory Population of 100 birds. Although the EMP flock has – as yet – had little breeding success, it continues to grow through ultralight-led chicks. That method is now being supplemented with releasing captive-raised chicks with older cranes, too.

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

Ultralight training of juvenile whooping cranes in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy, WCEP)

In addition to this one quite successful – if incomplete – re-introduction of whooping cranes in Eastern North America, the partners of WCEP continue with efforts to establish a non-migrating flock in the wild. From 1993 – 2004, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee worked with WCEP to introduce a non-migrating flock in central Florida, but problems with drought, predators, and reproduction have brought an end to the release of new cranes into this project. Since 2011 the focus for developing a non-migrating flock of whooping cranes has shifted to the wetlands of Louisiana. In partnership with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the fourth cohort of juvenile whooping cranes from Patuxent was released at the White Lakes Wetlands Conservation Area early this year.

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)

A class photo! The entire gang of adolescent whooping crane chicks together at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. The chicks, hatched and raised by USGS caretakers, are being released into the wild in Louisiana in February 2011. It is a milestone for the state and for the birds, which have not lived in the state since the 1950s. (Photo courtesy USGS)

Meet the Partners for Whooping Cranes

“It takes a village . . . , ” we often say, using those words to describe any complex project whether it’s raising a child, or building a house, or creating a new community organization. Or something else entirely.

Whoopingcrane1-875_jpg

When it comes to the efforts to restore an endangered species to a region from which it has long been absent, it takes a world of professionals and volunteers willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve the goal. In the case of the whooping cranes that are now being re-introduced into Wisconsin that “world” is made up of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a true partnership between public and private entities working to protect the whooping crane species.

Over the years people have opened their homes to others who are working directly with the cranes. Private individuals and entire businesses have opened their wallets. And it seems everyone who learns of them, has opened their hearts to the whoopers and their story of survival.

On it’s Who We Are webpage, WCEP lists literally dozens of private individuals, organizations and corporations, as well as a myriad of government agencies, as partners and supporters of this effort. A list of the nine original WCEP partners, and a minimalist description of each follows:

International Whooping Crane Recovery Team – This is the governing body charged with responsibility for the species, and comprised of 5 scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 5 from the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Private, Non-profit Organizations

International Crane Foundation – Founded in 1973 in Baraboo, WI, the ICF is dedicated to the conservation of all of the world’s 15 crane species, and preservation of their habitat.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation – Established by Congress in 1984, NFWF is one of the world’s largest conservation grant-makers, having raised more than $1.4 billion in private contributions and grantee matching funds.

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin – A non-profit organization based in Madison, WI, the foundation boosts private sector investment and involvement in Wisconsin’s natural resources.

Operation Migration – Every year since 2001, OM has imprinted a new generation of whooping crane chicks on its ultralight aircraft, and then led them from Wisconsin to Florida on their first migration.

Government Agencies

US Fish & Wildlife Service – This bureau within the U.S. Department of Interior, is charged with conservation and management of the nation’s fish and wildlife resources, and the protection of endangered species.

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the U.S. Geological Survey – Located in Laurel, MD., Patuxent raises about 2/3 of all whooping cranes raised for release to the wild, and provides research and logistical support for the Wisconsin release.

USGS National Wildlife Health Center – Founded in 1975, the NWHC, located in Madison, WI, is a biomedical laboratory dedicated to assessing the impact of disease on wildlife.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – Wisconsin was the first state to officially partner with the WCRT and the USFWS in an effort to establish an eastern migrating population of whooping cranes, and has also supplied much of the environmental data used to assess the suitability of the Wisconsin sites for the cranes’ release.

You can read a more detailed description of the WCEP partners here, or visit each partner’s own website for information in-depth.