The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) today announces the release of a comprehensive Five Year Strategic Plan for the reintroduction of a migratory population of Whooping Cranes to the eastern United States.
The partnership, in its tenth year, underwent an external review in 2010 leading to the development of a revised Strategic Plan that outlines project goals and guidelines for 2011 – 2015. The Five Year Strategic Plan is available at the Partnership’s Web site, http://www.bringbackthecranes.org/design/pdf/WCEP_5YearStrategicPlan.pdf
The effort over the past ten years to reintroduce migrating cranes has been very successful, with a current population of about 100 birds in the Eastern migratory flock. The new Five Year Strategic Plan shifts the focus of the partnership to balancing reintroducing new birds to the population with understanding and promoting successful reproduction by older birds at levels that will lead to the establishment of a self-sustaining population.
The primary focus of WCEP over the next five years will be on achieving successful reproduction in the wild flock by overcoming the current pattern of nesting failures through management of released and wild-hatched birds, while continuing to promote growth of the population through releases of captive-reared birds. Key to this effort will be identifying the factors that are contributing to the nest failure, and identifying management actions that address those factors and promote successful reproduction. This effort is the highest priority of the partnership.
WCEP researchers are currently conducting an analysis to determine the most suitable breeding habitat to target for future whooping crane releases. By April 2011, WCEP tentatively plans to identify specific additional release sites for whooping cranes and to seek landowner approval for releases in summer 2011. Since whooping cranes have been absent from the upper Midwest for over 120 years, WCEP plans to continue studying how reintroduced whooping cranes use the habitats they encounter following release. These data will refine understanding of the habitat requirements for whooping cranes in this region.
Necedah National Wildlife Refuge will continue to play an important role in the reintroduction including enabling the research identified, and possibly to raise cranes for release at new introduction sites or to experiment with new release techniques.
Whooping cranes reintroduced to the Eastern migratory flock are hatched at theU.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, MD., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, WI. To prepare captive young cranes for survival in the wild, chicks are raised by biologists under a strict isolation protocol meaning that handlers adhere to a no-talking rule and wear costumes designed to mask the human form.
In 2001, Operation Migration’s pilots led the first whooping crane chicks, conditioned to follow their ultralight aircraft, south from Necedah NWR to Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida. Each subsequent year, WCEP biologists and pilots have conditioned and guided additional groups of juvenile cranes to Florida. Having been shown the migration route south in the fall, the young birds are able to migrate north on their own in the spring, and in subsequent years, continue to migrate on their own. In 2008, St. Marks NWR along Florida’s Gulf Coast was added as an additional wintering site for the juvenile cranes.
In the spring and fall, project staff from the International Crane Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service track and monitor the released cranes in an effort to learn as much as possible about their unassisted journeys and the habitat choices cranes make both during migration and on their summering and wintering grounds.
Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin, as well as other public and private lands.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 570 birds in existence, approximately 400 of them in the wild. There is one remaining wild population of about 250 whooping cranes that nest at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada and winters at Aransas NWR on the Texas Gulf Coast. A non-migrating flock of approximately 20 birds lives year-round in the central Florida Kissimmee region.
Whooping cranes, named for their loud and penetrating unison calls, live and breed in wetland areas, where they feed on crabs, clams, frogs and aquatic plants. They are distinctive animals, standing five feet tall, with white bodies, black wing tips and red crowns on their heads.
WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to please give them the respect and distance they need. Do not approach birds on foot within 200 yards; remain in your vehicle; do not approach in a vehicle within 100 yards. Also, please remain concealed and do not speak loudly enough that the birds can hear you. Finally, do not trespass on private property in an attempt to view or photograph whooping cranes.
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding members are the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, Inc., Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and National Wildlife Health Center, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, and the International Whooping Crane Recovery Team.
Many other flyway states, provinces, private individuals and conservation groups have joined forces with and support WCEP by donating resources, funding and personnel. More than 60 percent of the project’s budget comes from private sources in the form of grants, public donations and corporate sponsors.