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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Ask the Experts: News for Craniacs

The Wisconsin DNR held an Ask-The-Experts online chat this week about the whooping cranes of Wisconsin, (officially known as the Eastern Migratory Population, or the EMP).  This was easily the liveliest Asked the Experts chat I’ve witnessed, and indeed I found out later the DNR said there were 211 participants during the live chat, and 106 people (a number that will increase) who accessed within 24 hours after it was live.

These are “amazing numbers,” according to the DNR’s own assessment.  There were 137 questions submitted and answered by the following experts that were on duty for this chat: Davin Lopez, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin DNR; Karis Ritenour, whooping crane field technician at the International Crane Foundation; Anne Lacy, crane research coordinator for ICF; and Heather Ray, the director of development for Operation Migration.

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.

This DNR-hosted chat is a great service, which recurs every fall, and I think in the spring, as well. You can learn a lot about the EMP and the people who manage it, the partners of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (or WCEP), just by tuning in. No whooping crane question is ever too simple, nor too complex.

Except for this chat: there was one question that surfaced repeatedly at the beginning of the hour, and was always deferred. Here’s the explanation:

Mum’s the Word on Operation Migration’s Petition to USFWS

It’s no surprise that many people who tuned in to ‘ask the experts’ were eager for new information about the future of Operation Migration and the Ultralight Light program. The recent public posting by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of a new vision statement which recommends an end to the ultralight program, has received quite a bit of attention – not just on Facebook, but also in the mainstream media. Half a dozen questions about it were quickly submitted.

“I would imagine that DNR does not share the same sentiment that the FWS has . .” began one, to which Davin Lopez replied that WCEP partners will be discussing this in January, at the start of the group’s 5-year review. “Much to discuss,” he added, as he would to several more queries about Operation Migration’s achievements.

From the archives: Operation Migration's efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

From the archives: Operation Migration’s efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins with the little cranes following the ultralight as it taxis along the ground. (USFWS photo)

Heather Ray, who is OM’s Director of Development and also a co-chair of WCEP’s Communication and Outreach Team, wore only one ‘hat’ for the hour – her WCEP one. She met each question about OM’s expertise and about the online petition campaign, (which OM launched as a way for its supporters to reach USFWS) with determination to focus only on WCEP. Six or seven questions that tried to probe the issue were all met with “we’ll be discussing this in January.”

So, the Audience Turned to Other Topics

And the questions flowed. Just a few examples follow:

Q:  Is there still an effort to establish a non migratory flock in the south? A: Yes, in Louisiana; it’s only a few years old, but there are 37 birds, and there were 4 nesting pair this year.

Q:  How do young cranes without parents find their way south? A: Direct Autumn Release birds and Parent-Reared birds are released near adult whoopers and sandhills with the goal of having them follow the adult birds on migration. Now and then, individual birds will strike out on their own, and in those cases they have migrated successfully and returned to Wisconsin.

What is the Rate of Success for the EMP?

There were a lot of questions about the EMP, and how it – this reintroduction of a migrating flock of whoopers – is really working. Just what is the rate of success?

Q: “Are we seeing some progress, and if so, where is the greatest success, if that can be measured yet?” Karis Ritenour answered: “This year’s hatching numbers were extremely encouraging. More birds are nesting, more eggs are hatching, and even having three fledged chicks this year was a step forward. It is difficult to know what is “expected” because there is so much we don’t know about the natural flock as well.”

What is the Size of the EMP?

More specific questions include:

Q: What is the current size of the EMP? A: There are 92 birds now. When the eight birds for this year’s Direct Autumn Release are fully on their own, they will be added to the total. (They will be fully released very soon, but until then they are monitored, kept safe at night, and receive supplemental feeding.) When the six young whoopers that are currently following the ultralights to Florida are fully on their own – that won’t be until they leave on their own for migration north next spring – then they too will be added to the total count of EMP whoopers. “These cranes use a large range of wintering locations across the southeast,” added Heather, who answered this question.

Why Don’t More EMP Whooping Cranes Migrate to Florida?

This is something that I had been wondering about – so few of them seem to return to Florida on migration – and others were asking about it. The Florida gulf coast was chosen for the EMP in winter because it replicates the gulf coast environment of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge where the wild flock has spent winters for all its known history.

A whooping crane pair at Patoka NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

A whooping crane pair at Patoka NWR in Indiana; during fall migration in 2010. (Photo by Steve Gifford; from the Flickr photo stream of Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership; used with permission.)

But for the past 4 or 5 years, quite a few of the EMP cranes have spent the winter months in places as varied as southern Indiana, South Carolina and Alabama. Does the whooping crane partnership – WCEP – think that’s ok, we’re wondering? And the answer is, Yes! They’re doing just fine in the winter locations they choose. “By taking them to the Florida coast we show them the entirety of the flyway,” Anne Lacy explained, “and they can choose where they prefer on subsequent migrations.”

Whatever Happened to the Class of 2014?

Another question that has some craniacs scratching their heads, and worrying over, involves the ultralight-trained whoopers of 2014. Because of an extreme weather problem these birds had to be crated in Wisconsin and driven to Tennessee a year ago. Will they need to be “captured and crated again,”someone asked?

Not at all, we were assured. They’ve been on their own, wandering around Wisconsin through the summer months – “wandering” is the commonplace term for expected young adult crane behavior. The WCEP partners have complete confidence that these birds will decide for themselves where and when to migrate – and will certainly return to Wisconsin next spring.

The Next Post

This report is so long, and since there are several more topics that generated several questions, The Badger and the Whooping Crane will continue coverage of Ask the Experts in the next post.  It will cover questions about the toll predation is taking on the EMP, and about the prospects for future nesting in the “Wisconsin Rectangle.”  And there will be updates on two whooping cranes – first Whoopsie, then Kevin – that made news in 2015.

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.

Ask the Experts – The Whooping Crane Edition

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held an online chat about whooping crane migration and other related issues last week. It took place at noon, October 31st.

It was one of the DNR’s series of Ask The Experts online events, where various DNR staff take part in discussions and answer questions about their topic of expertise. There have been sessions on walleye fishing, deer hunting, well water testing, beach monitoring, and so many other topics.

For the Whooping Crane version of Ask The Experts, Davin Lopez – the DNR’s whooping crane coordinator, was joined by 2 other partners in the whooping crane reintroduction efforts in Wisconsin. Joan Garland, outreach coordinator for the International Crane Foundation, and Heather Ray, associate director of development for Operation Migration, joined Davin in typing back answers to the questions almost as fast as we online chatterers submitted them.

Midway through the chat we learned that there were approximately 100 who were participating! As a participant you have no idea that you are part of such a large virtual audience.

Among the many dozens of questions that were asked, the topic that attracted the most attention – at least 12 questions and comments – was concerned with treatments to reduce the Black fly population (which seems to contribute to the cranes abandoning nests at breeding time) at Necedah NWR. I’ll add a separate post about that, but first, here is a list of some of the topics touched on:

– Although the ultralight-led migration began for this year’s crop of new cranes on October 2nd, there have been no reports of “on migration” sightings of any of the 100-plus adult whooping cranes in Wisconsin. Heather Ray said that generally they don’t begin migration before November.

– She also said that the ultralight migration flights begin with short flights of 5 to 20 miles in distance and gradually expand to 50 and 60 mile flights, as the birds gain experience and stamina.

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young.

Efforts to train whooping cranes to migrate with ultralights begins when the colts are very young.

– The goal of the whooping crane re-introduction campaign in Wisconsin (technically the campaign is for the entire Eastern half of North America, but Wisconsin is key, as the northern terminus of the flyway that is being established) is 100 individual birds (that goal is within reach) and 25 successful breeding pairs (not even close); actually, Davin Lopez called this “a very rough goal . . . what we need is a self sustaining, growing population.”

– Ray reported that there were 20 breeding pair in Wisconsin in 2013. Unfortunately only 3 chicks hatched from these nests, and only one has survived to fledge. (The survivor is designated #W3-13 – the 3rd chick hatched in the wild in 2013 – and will be migrating south with its parents: #9 from 2003, and #3 from 2004).

– Except for 3 surviving wild chicks (the 2013 survivor, and #w1-06, and #w3-10) all of Wisconsin’s wild whooping cranes were hatched from eggs produced each year by the captive populations at ICF and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Ray said that there are generally 30 and 40 eggs available each year from these sources, and they are split 50/50 between Wisconsin and the new <strong>Louisiana Non-migrating flock; efforts to establish this were launched in 2011.

– One participant commented about a Sandhill Crane hunt, which has been rumored for Wisconsin. He suggested that it would be hard for hunters to distinguish between young whooping crane colts and Sandhills. Joan Garland referred him to a fact sheet at the International Crane Foundation website that addresses the hunting proposal.

– As the chat closed, another guest added this personal note: “Thanks to a school presentation by Joan, my son is hooked on the whooping crane and he wants to be a biologist when he grows up!”

How lucky, that courtesy of the International Crane foundation, I just happen to have a picture of Joan making such a presentation! And here it is:

International Crane Foundation's Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

International Crane Foundation’s Joan Garland gives a school presentation.

[Photo credits: Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, and the International Crane Foundation.]