Archive for the ‘Non WCCA Articles’ Category

2012 Whooping Crane Breeding Season Summary -Canadian Wildlife Service

May 15, 2013

by Canadian Wildlife Service

The 2012 whooping crane nesting season was again productive with a high number of nests being discovered and many fledged young observed. Water levels in spring and late summer were adequate and chicks benefited from mild summer conditions. For the third time since 1988, whooping crane chicks were captured and banded in Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP). Annual precipitation preceding the 2012 breeding season was 14 percent below the 60year average despite above average accumulation in the spring. The majority of spring precipitation fell in the month of March before the arrival of cranes in WBNP. During May, water levels were high in most parts of the breeding range, giving the birds many options for nesting. Rain in July, August, and September maintained water levels and presumably supported an adequate food supply. Area affected by forest fires in WBNP was extensive in 2012. Six percent of the park burned in 2012 (the 25-year average burn area is 1%). Five fires occurred in the whooping crane nesting area, burning 17,312 ha or 4.2% of that area.

In May, aerial surveys were conducted to identify whooping crane breeding whooper chick with adult in marshpairs and nests in and outside of WBNP. During surveys, 67 pairs of whooping cranes were detected, 66 of these had nests. This number represents the third highest count on record. In addition to nests detected during surveys, three lone birds displaying territorial behaviour were observed but nests were not located for these birds. The single non-nesting territorial pair suggests potential for further population expansion in coming years. Of the 66 nests detected in 2012, five were in new territories (all within WBNP) and five were outside of the national park (two in the Lobstick Creek area, and three north of the Nyarling river).

In late July, surveys to determine fledging success of whooping cranes were completed. In total, observers detected 35 fledged young in 33 family groups (31 groups had a single chick, two families had two chicks). Apparent average fledging success was slightly higher (0.53) than the 20-year average (0.48). Actual success may have been higher but smoke from fires during surveys made it difficult or impossible to access several territories in which nests were detected earlier in the year; thus, additional chicks may have fledged but gone undetected.

The nesting habitat of the Whooping Crane consists of marshes, shallow ponds, small creeks, and patches of wooded terrain and shrubs. Winter habitat consists of salt or brackish tidal marshes, tidal flats, freshwater upland ponds, and grassland. The birds also have traditional spots in Saskatchewan where they return each fall during migration. Note two whooping cranes in the center of the photograph

The nesting habitat of the Whooping Crane consists of marshes, shallow ponds, small creeks, and patches of wooded terrain and shrubs. Note two whooping cranes in the center of the photograph

This year marked the third year of a multi-agency research initiative to capture and mark fledged whooping crane chicks in WBNP. Captured birds are fitted with a satellite transmitter with Global Positioning System capabilities mounted on a two-piece leg band. Transmitters are programmed to record the bird’s spatial location four times daily, recording both daytime and nighttime locations; this schedule provides data on diurnal and nocturnal (roosting) habitat use during all stages of the annual cycle, and on migratory behaviour in spring and fall.

The marking project, carried out by the Whooping Crane Tracking Partnership (WCTP), represents a cooperative effort between five core partners: the Canadian Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Crane Trust, and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (with support from Parks Canada Agency, the International Crane Foundation, and the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory). On 31 July and 01 August, 10 fledged whooping crane chicks were captured and marked with satellite transmitters.

Whooping cranes spotted near South Dakota wind project

May 3, 2013
“While the cranes were in the area, the biologists carefully watched and charted their movements from afar, taking exceptional care to not spook or harass them.”
Basin Electric Power Cooperative – May 2, 2013
Whooping cranes
Whooping cranes spotted in South Dakota.

On April 2, a flock of 16 whooping cranes were spotted near the Crow Lake Wind Project in South Dakota. The birds were spotted by one of the wind technicians. Once the cranes were spotted, about three dozen wind towers were immediately shut down. For almost the entire month of April, there were cranes in the area. It was a combination of some leaving, some arriving and some remaining. As the birds moved around the area, towers were shut down as needed.

According to Kevin Tschosik, Basin Electric manager of distributed generation, any wind turbines within a two-mile radius of a crane sighting must be immediately shut down. “During the initial sighting, we shut down 37 of the 108 towers in the park,” he said. “As the birds were moving through the area during the month, various towers were shut down within the two-mile radius and  the entire park was shut down a couple of times.”

During the spring and fall whooping crane migration seasons, Basin Electric hires biologists to patrol the Crow Lake wind park, searching for whooping cranes. Tschosik said the Crow Lake wind park boundaries encompass about 35,000 acres, and wind technicians also are on the lookout for cranes. The whooping crane spring migration season begins April 1 and continues through May 15. The fall season begins Sept. 10 and continues through Oct. 31. He said all of the wind technicians at all of Basin Electric’s wind parks participate in annual training to spot and identify whooping cranes.

“This is an example of where our training paid off, and we followed proper procedures to prevent any possibility of injuring a whooping crane due to it flying into a moving turbine blade,” Tschosik said. “The cranes that were observed were spotted by one of our wind technicians who made the call to dispatch and the park manager to start shutting down the towers.”

While the cranes were in the area, the biologists carefully watched and charted their movements from afar taking exceptional care to not spook or harass them, Tschosik said. In addition, regular updates were provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep them informed of the ongoing bird observations and tower shutdowns.

Whooping cranes are one of the rarest birds in the world with a total population of approximately 600 individuals, with less than 300 in the migratory flock that travels through South Dakota. After being pushed to the brink of extinction by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat to just 21 wild and two captive whooping cranes by 1941, conservation efforts have led to a limited recovery. As of 2011, there are an estimated 437 birds in the wild and more than 165 in captivity. The whooping cranes that travel through South Dakota migrate from wintering grounds along the gulf coast of Texas to the Wood Buffalo National Park located in Alberta and the Northwest Territories of Canada.

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Water, Whooping Cranes, and the ESA

April 5, 2013

by Dave Owen, Associate Professor of Law, University of Maine School of Law*

Three weeks ago, a federal district court in Texas issued an important ESA decision.  The Aransas Project v. Shaw also is a very long decision—124 pages, to be exact—so I’ve been a bit slow to get a blog post up.  Despite its daunting length, the case is important reading for anyone interested in water management or the ESA.  It’s also a rather intriguing case study of the use—both successful and badly botched—of expert testimony in environmental litigation.

The case arises out of water management controversies in Texas.  According to the plaintiffs, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and its fellow defendants had taken whooping cranes in violation of section 9 of the Endangered Species Act.  They had done this, the plaintiffs argued, by allowing excessive water withdrawals from the river systems that feed into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which provides vital whooping crane habitat.  The court agreed, enjoined the issuance of new water permits, and ordered the defendants to prepare a habitat conservation plan and seek an incidental take permit.

That’s a very interesting outcome, because successful section 9 actions against water managers don’t seem to be particularly common.  I haven’t done any sort of rigorous survey, but my impression, based on working as a water lawyer and then on my academic research into related ESA questions, is that environmental groups have gained much more leverage through ESA section 7.  Indeed, in the Southeast’s longstanding Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint controversy, similar take claims brought against upstream water managers failed.  See Alabama v. Army Corps of Engineers, 441 F. Supp. 2d 1123 (N.D. Ala. 2006) . So could this case signal the emergence of a new front in the ESA/water allocation wars?  My suspicion is that several factors will make these plaintiffs’ success difficult to replicate.  In no particular order, those factors are:

The extraordinary level of data available to the plaintiffs in this case.  Reading the opinion made me wonder if these whooping cranes are one of the most carefully observed wild animal populations on earth.  As the court describes, scientists have been counting whooping cranes since the 1950s.  Since the early 1980s, scientists—including one of the plaintiffs’ experts—have conducted dozens of monitoring flights every year.  The resulting level of information is exceptional.  Usually population biologists must rely on some combination of observational data (usually limited), proxy indicators like habitat conditions, and computer-based modeling to assess the status of a population.  The resulting uncertainties can limit plaintiffs’ ability to demonstrate causal relationships with enough certainty to support a successful ESA section 9 claim.  With whooping cranes, the circumstances are quite different.

The imbalance of experts.  The plaintiffs had an impressive array of experts on their side.  Here’s the court’s description:

At trial, TAP presented seventeen witnesses, ten of whom were experts, GBRA eight; SARA one: and TCEQ two.   As will be discussed in more detail later, TAP’s experts were world renowned in their respective fields.  Several of TAP’s witnesses hold endowed chairs at prestigious universities, some are MacArthur Fellows, all have published numerous scientific papers in respected journals.  Indeed, one witness, Dr. Ronald Sass, is a shared recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work.  TAP’s crane experts… have years of study in the field and have devoted their time and energies to the survival of the AWB species.  All of TAP’s experts were accepted as such and the Court finds their testimonies compelling and credible.

The court had less laudatory things to say about the defendants’ experts.  For example:

Dr. Slack did not personally spend any significant amount of time in the field, averaging one day per year over the past fifteen years.  Contrary to the scientific literature, Dr. Slack testified that cranes did not need freshwater because they had functioning supraorbital salt glands which allowed them to secrete excess salt.  However, when questioned further by the Court, Dr. Slack admitted that he had no observational basis for this statement, he had not reviewed literature on cranes and freshwater, and that he “just made it up.” (record citations omitted)

The level of judicial interest.  From the outset, the narrative structure of the opinion (yes, it does have a narrative structure) strongly suggests that someone in the court’s chambers cared very deeply about this case, and probably also about whooping cranes.  Before getting into the procedural history, relevant law, or even the identities of the parties, the opinion spends several pages describing the whooping crane die-off, much like a detective novel beginning with the key murder.  But the real tip-off comes later, in a remarkable passage debunking the work of one of the aforementioned Dr. Slack’s graduate students:

[A key defense report] used a report by Dr. Slack’s graduate student Danielle Greer whose conclusions to the preferred food of whooping cranes was (sic) based on 90 plus hours of video of three crane areas.  The Court watched all of the videos and finds that they were either too blurred to see anything or non-demonstrative of any habit, feeding or otherwise.

So what does this all suggest?  If I’m reading correctly, it shows that when plaintiffs have extraordinarily good monitoring data, an all-star team of experts, poorly prepared experts on the other side, and a judicial chambers where someone—perhaps the judge, more likely a clerk—cares so deeply that she is willing to watch 90 hours of blurry footage of whooping cranes, they can win an ESA section 9 case against upstream water managers.  Absent those circumstances, the challenge might be a bit harder.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be other cases like this.  Conflicts between water withdrawals and the needs of endangered fish and wildlife probably aren’t going away any time soon.  But the case does illustrate the level of scientific and legal work necessary for plaintiffs to prevail.

* Dave Owen’s article is re-posted from Environmental Law Prof Blog, A Member of the Law Professor Blogs Network

Young Whooping Crane In Capture Project Dies

September 3, 2012
NORTHERN JOURNAL (Article reprinted with permission)
• Sun, Sep 02, 2012
Young whooping cranes, 31 in all, have been banded with transmitters for three summers in their summer Wood Buffalo National Park habitat. (Photo: Courtesy of Parks Canada)

A juvenile whooping crane has died, possibly from a self-inflicted wound suffered trying to escape capture in Wood Buffalo National Park. The bird was to be banded as part of a program attaching radio transmitters to juvenile cranes. The carcass has been shipped to the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Centre in Saskatoon for autopsy.

“We don’t know the cause of death. The crane was injured. It may have happened as part of the capture process,” Stuart McMillan, Wood Buffalo National Park manager of Resource Conservation told The Journal.

Crews land in a helicopter and try to round up the young birds, which naturally run away. McMillan said cranes are known to scratch themselves while running.

The bird was seen to be injured after it was captured for the banding process. A veterinarian is part of the capture crew and the young bird was examined immediately, treated with an antibiotic and released. It returned to its parents and things seemed normal. Some time later, the signal from the transmitter stopped moving. On investigation, the bird was found dead.

“It is certainly disappointing. We didn’t want to have a result like this. We want to find out what happened to prevent it from happening again,” said McMillan.

He said if the cause of death is from the capture process they will study it and make changes to procedures to minimize the risk of it happening again. 

The banding exercise, called “telemetry,” is a joint Canada-US project. Thirty one juvenile cranes have been outfitted with transmitters over the last three years without incident.

Migration routes, habitat sought during migration, food sources and threats cranes face are just some of the information the project hopes to gather. The data is still preliminary, and it is too early to draw conclusions.

It is known that whooping cranes often stop in the same places year after year as they come and go annually between Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in the NWT. In some places where they are known to stop each year, people gather to watch for them. It is hoped that public awareness can be raised once more is learned about where and when they stop.

One thing being investigated is the impact of power lines. Dead cranes have been found in the vicinity of power lines but no one knows why. Some speculate lines should be marked along the migration route and that new lines planned in those locations be erected at different sites. One benefit of the radio transmitters is that a dead bird can be found right away.

“When a crane dies it is best to look at an intact carcass to determine the cause of death, not one decomposed or torn apart by scavengers. If banded with a transmitter which stops moving, we can go look for the bird right away,” said McMillan.

This winter, adult birds will also be captured and banded at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.

Journey North Whooping Crane Info

August 25, 2012

Journey North produces one of the most interesting web pages that I am aware of. It is a prime educational tool for teachers and appeals to nature interests of all ages. Recently Journey North posted some very interesting information concerning Whooping Cranes and the Seasons, The Annual Cycle of the Whooping Crane. We wanted our viewers to be aware of Journey North’s information and we pasted their post in hopes it will be easier for you to open. We invite you to click on the “blue links” below to observe some excellent photography and associated information about whooping cranes.

Chester McConnell, Web Page Editor, Whooping Crane Conservation Association

Whooping Cranes and the Seasons
The Annual Cycle of the Whooping Crane

More Slideshows
Photo gallery of annual cycle
Month by month, where are Whooping cranes and what are they doing? Explore the annual cycle to discover how Whooping cranes respond to the seasons.

Essential Question
What is the annual cycle of the Whooping Crane?



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Whooping Crane Man

July 23, 2012

Crane Man

by Michael Berryhill , a Texas Monthly article, August 2012

No one knows more about whooping cranes than Tom Stehn, who studied and cared for them for three decades. Then he retired—only to discover that the magnificent and endangered birds needed him more than ever.

Early last December, Tom Stehn was enjoying his retirement in Aransas Pass, soaking in his hot tub after a morning of windsurfing, when the phone rang. He grimaced for a moment but hopped out of the water naked to see who was bothering him. A U.S. marshal was calling from his car, which was parked in Stehn’s driveway. A federal judge in Corpus Christi wanted him to testify about the deaths of 23 whooping cranes he’d reported during the winter of 2008 to 2009, two years before he had retired. The marshal asked if Stehn could come to court immediately. “All right,” he said, “but give me a minute to put on my clothes.”

Stehn knew what the case was about. A longtime biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he had served as its whooping crane coordinator for over a decade. No one had more hands-on experience with the birds, which are among the most endangered  in North America. He had flown on countless aerial surveys to identify the whooping cranes’ winter territories in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, studied their habitat, measured the salinity of their marshes, celebrated their return each year, nurtured their sick, and, when he could, recovered their dead. In the winter of 2008 an emaciated juvenile had died in his arms.

Over the years, Stehn had watched the flock grow from 71 to nearly 300 birds. But he determined that during the drought of 2008 and 2009, 8.5 percent of the wintering flock and nearly 45 percent of the first-year juveniles had died. The following year, coastal tourism businesses, environmentalists, and the O’Connor family of Victoria, who owns tens of thousands of acres near the Guadalupe River, formed a nonprofit group called the Aransas Project and sued the state. The organization claimed that, under the Endangered Species Act, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was responsible for the deaths of the cranes because it had failed to allow enough freshwater to flow from the Guadalupe River into San Antonio Bay, which adjoins the wildlife refuge.

The State of Texas, led by the Guadalupe–Blanco River Authority (GBRA), countered that the lawsuit was based on pure speculation. Of the 23 birds that Stehn had reported dead, only 4 carcasses had been recovered. How could he prove the others had died? And even if they had, how could the environmentalists know that the deaths resulted from a lack of freshwater? Witnesses for the state contended that computer models proved the whooping cranes could survive perfectly well with very little freshwater. They even claimed that because of a special gland, whooping cranes might not need to drink freshwater at all.

The case has exposed a long-simmering battle between the two sides. Although state law directs the TCEQ to plan for freshwater inflows to keep Texas bays healthy and productive, environmentalists have been complaining for years that the agency has failed to live up to its responsibilities. In 2003, for example, a group of environmentalists had applied for water rights to protect wildlife in San Antonio Bay, and the TCEQ denied the request. The GBRA, in particular, has a great deal at stake. Its priorities are cities, farmers, and industry, and there are plans for several new power plants, including a proposed nuclear facility, to be built in the region. If the plaintiffs win, those projects could be put on hold.

Both parties had visited Stehn’s old office and obtained copies of his annual reports, and both had tried to recruit him as a paid expert witness. Though the Department of the Interior typically prohibits its biologists from testifying as expert witnesses, Stehn was inclined to stay out of the trial anyway. He had been concerned about the management of the Guadalupe River for years, and he worried that the state’s lawyers would try to destroy his life’s work to win the suit. U.S. district judge Janis Jack decided that Stehn’s testimony was essential, however, and she ordered each side to pay half of his $200-an-hour fee. “That’s good Christmas money,” the judge told him.

Since this was a bench trial, the case hinged primarily on whether Jack believed Stehn’s testimony. It was as if he were the only eyewitness at a murder trial and the victims were his children. Still, his presence did provide a bit of levity. Because his last name rhymes with the birds’ name, the judge would laugh when lawyers on both sides addressed him, in slips of the tongue, as “Mr. Crane.”

“I know these cranes,” he told the court. “I’ve been watching some of the same ones since 1982. I hate to be—what’s the word?—anthropomorphic, but it’s almost like they’re my kids out there.”

Of the fifteen species of cranes in the world, Stehn explained, only the whooping crane is territorial about its winter grounds. Mated pairs, some with juveniles they have reared during the summer in Canada, stake out an average of 425 acres of coastal marsh along the peninsulas and barrier islands of San Antonio Bay. When these territories were first mapped, in the late forties, there were only fourteen. As the flock grew over the years, the birds claimed smaller pieces of marsh, and by the winter of 2008 to 2009, Stehn had identified seventy different territories. Because the birds always returned to the same place, Stehn believed his weekly aerial surveys would allow him to count every crane. (The Lobstick territory had been used by the same male crane for thirty years.) He finally concluded that the flock had grown to 270 birds, plus or minus 2 or 3 percent.

After Stehn explained his census methods, Jim Blackburn, a veteran environmental attorney from Houston who was leading the case for the Aransas Project, asked the kind of question that lawyers hate: one whose answer they’re not absolutely sure of. He needed to know how many cranes had died that winter. “Is twenty-three your number?” he asked.

Stehn took a long moment to think about his response. Blackburn felt his gut turning over, because this was the heart of the case. Stehn noticed a look of puzzlement, almost panic, in Blackburn’s face and then said, “If I had to pick a number, it would be higher than twenty-three.”

The dead included mated pairs that had not had offspring as well as pure-white parents with rusty juveniles. But Stehn had also been watching ninety subadults, who tended to move about the refuge. “They can be on the refuge one day, they can fly across the bay to San José [Island] the next day or the next hour . . . they can be singles,” Stehn testified. “So you can’t ever tell if a bird like that is missing. It’s very reasonable to assume that some of them died that are not in that twenty-three.”

As for the 23 Stehn was certain had died, he could identify each by territory and date. Because the deaths had occurred all across the refuge, he believed that drought was the culprit. “It was a high-mortality winter,” Stehn said, “and at that point, the food supply was not good. There were low numbers of crabs, and the wolfberry crop had not been good. And from my experience, that kind of screams out that trouble is brewing.”

The refuge staff started feeding the cranes shelled corn at thirteen stations on upland parts of the cranes’ winter grounds, but this created a different problem. The birds are safest from predators in the open marsh, but when they fly inland, they increase their chances of being attacked by bobcats and other predators. To follow up on Stehn’s testimony, the environmentalists needed to prove that the lack of freshwater inflows was also related to the deaths. Two Rice University professors presented data that linked low river inflows to high crane mortality.

The GBRA fought back with a $2.14 million study it had helped fund in 2002 called the San Antonio Guadalupe Estuarine System, or SAGES, to determine the effect of freshwater inflows on whooping cranes. The report, which was released in 2009, around the same time that Stehn had reported the deaths of the cranes, concluded, “None of the study results indicated that habitat conditions [at the refuge] are marginal for crane survival and well-being.” The SAGES scientists built a conceptual computer model that indicated there was plenty of food, regardless of conditions.

During the testimony, Jack freely interrupted lawyers and questioned witnesses. She wrote notes furiously and researched suspect statements. At the outset of the trial she cracked, “I just wanted to rule out the fact that those [missing cranes] could have gone to New Mexico or, you know, to Antigua for the holidays or something.” Most of her remarks were aimed at the defense. She often shut down lines of questioning that seemed tiresome with a terse phrase: “Got it.” During eight days of testimony, the state heard that a lot.

A defense witness who reviewed the necropsy of one of the four crane carcasses noted that the bird had a greenish discoloration of the leg, which he associated with gangrene. Jack was astounded. She was well aware that gangrene is typically associated with a blue or black discoloration, so she grilled him about other weaknesses in his testimony. “I’m sorry,” she told the courtroom. “I know I’m being difficult with him, but I have never heard a scientist say when he saw something green that he thought of gangrene. I can’t quite move beyond it.”

Jack was even harder on R. Douglas Slack, the Texas A&M professor who led the SAGES study. Slack’s researchers had concluded that insects, clams, snails, and acorns would provide enough nutrition for the cranes, basing their findings in part on eighty to ninety hours’ worth of sometimes fuzzy videos that recorded the feeding habits of the birds. Stehn had presented Texas Parks and Wildlife Department data that showed that the cranes’ favored food, blue crabs, declined during times of low river inflow.

Jack grew exasperated with the SAGES model and its failure to incorporate the diet and mortality data that Stehn had collected. Under her intense questioning, Slack conceded that the cranes probably did need freshwater inflows—even if the model said they didn’t.

“Okay,” Jack said. “I’m just telling you, you can’t create a model. You can’t create a multiplier based on no information, which is what you’ve done. You have done it on what you figure is a normal, walking-around bird without determining how much energy it takes to forage for this versus forage for that. All these different things are critical to the well-being of the whooping crane. Even I can figure that one out.”

Slack’s most embarrassing moment came when the judge pressed him about the cranes’ supraorbital salt gland, which the defense claimed made them immune to the high salinity that comes with drought.

“I’ll tell you,” Jack said, “when the report was filed, I said, ‘What is this, a natural desalinization plan?’ So I looked it up, and there wasn’t anybody that ever described any such thing on a whooping crane.”

At one point, Jack asked Slack, “Where did you get that?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“You just made it up?”

“Yeah, I just made it up.”

After eight days of testimony, Jack heard no final arguments but instead asked each side to file briefs. She has encouraged both sides to work toward a settlement while she reviews the testimony, but if they cannot reach an agreement, she could issue a verdict as early as this month. If Jack rules for the Aransas Project, she could order the state to negotiate a Habitat Conservation Plan, in which the state would apportion the cranes a share of freshwater from the Guadalupe River. Bill West, the general manager of the GBRA, said that such a ruling would overturn traditional Texas water rights that date back more than one hundred years and disrupt the economic growth of the middle coast of Texas. “There’s no question,” he said. “It’s a classic example of federal intervention into state water rights by use of the Endangered Species Act. The judge does not have the authority to interfere with state water rights.”

In the meantime, Stehn has returned to Aransas Pass and to windsurfing, soaking in his hot tub, and enjoying the peace and quiet. But he laments how his old job has changed. During last year’s record drought, the remains of three cranes were recovered, but the total number of deaths was difficult to determine. That’s because biologists now employ a technique known as distance sampling to estimate the size of the flock. The new method, which is widely used to determine the populations of rare and endangered wildlife, doesn’t count birds individually, as Stehn used to do. Instead biologists fly aerial surveys during a predetermined time frame, and the cranes that are identified are recorded as a percentage to determine the population. However, according to guidelines, the two observers in the plane are not allowed to tell each other if one sees a bird. Nor does the pilot return, as Stehn did, and fly over a particular area again and again to search for missing birds in specific territories.

Stehn always believed that the results of his census were 97 to 98 percent accurate. He has read that the new method for estimating the birds is only 85 percent accurate. He thinks that between thirty and forty cranes could have died last winter, but nobody knows for sure. Current surveys put the refuge’s population at 245 cranes. That represents a loss of 38 birds from Stehn’s final census in 2010 and 2011, though the U.S. Parks and Wildlife Service points out that it’s difficult to compare the numbers given the different methods of data collection and harsh drought conditions of the previous winter. “I think last year was a bad year,” Stehn said. “I’m frustrated that the refuge didn’t document that. They fell flat on their face.”

Stehn is concerned about more than the end of an annual count, though. He worries that invasive black mangrove and rising sea levels could wipe out the cranes’ marshes. Perhaps Stehn’s problem is that he stayed at the Aransas refuge too long, but after he arrived thirty years ago, he never left. Images of whooping cranes decorate his walls, his T-shirts, and his coffee mugs. Looking back at his career, he says, with a hint of wonder, “I just got enamored with cranes.”


May 7, 2012

By  Joe Duff, Operation Migration*

Another Whooping crane was shot last week, this one in South Dakota.

It was an adult, in the company of two others and on its way from the gulf coast of Texas to the Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. Whooping cranes are not colonial birds that flock together in large numbers. Instead they generally migrate in family groups, so the two others could have been its mate and their chick from last year. They still had another 1000 miles to go to reach their nesting grounds. If the third bird was their offspring from last season, they would have shooed it off before they re-claimed their territory and built a nest for this year’s eggs.

Whooping cranes are anything but camouflaged. At five feet tall in bright white feathers, they stand out like a beacon and make an obvious target for those so inclined. This bird was shot with a high powered rifle while it stood in a field. That brings the number of Whooping cranes shot in the last two and a half years to twelve.

I purposely used the word “shot” so it wouldn’t be confused with “hunted.” There are two words to describe the activity of using a gun to harvest wild prey. One is hunting and it describes the legal taking of game species for sport. The other word is poaching but that has connotations of stealing something for food and that was not the case here or in any of the other shootings. There should be another name for people who shoot things just to kill them.

It is hard to understand why someone would want to kill a Whooping crane simply because they can. Maybe it’s an act of defiance or a belief that the rules apply to everyone but them, or perhaps it’s displaced aggression; they kill a Whooping crane because they can’t kill their boss. One of the arguments we have heard consistently is that they didn’t know what it was and if we had done a better job of educating people, it wouldn’t happen. Now there is a warped sense of privilege for you.

Many words can be used to describe that attitude. The list starts with terms like self-serving and arrogant and degrades to adjectives like ignorant. Then it drops below the line that is only printable if it’s scrawled on the wall of a public urinal.

The one term you can’t use to describe them is “hunter.” Real hunters obey the rules; in fact they often make the rules. They are also responsible for most of the conservation work that takes place. Hunting groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Wild Turkey Federation protect thousands of acres of habitat while a tax on firearms and ammunition known as the Pittman Robertson Act has provided over 5 billion dollars to wildlife projects. But twelve birds in just over two years is far too many and maybe it is time we asked hunting organizations for help. Perhaps they would welcome the opportunity to educate the morons with the twisted values.

Or maybe you can’t reach people that stupid. They say that if you make it idiot proof, they will simply make a better idiot.

* This article reprinted with permission of Operation Migration

Non-Migratory Whooping Cranes -Louisiana Update

April 7, 2012

Louisiana Whooping Cranes – February 2012

By: Sara Zimorski, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

2010 Cohort

After dispersing away from the release pen most of the birds from this group of 10 left the marsh and moved north into agricultural areas, primarily rice and crawfish. As previously reported 1 bird became sick and was euthanized, 1 bird was likely killed by a predator, and a third bird disappeared and is presumed dead.

Photo by: B. Stone, MD

Summer research of the remaining 7 focused on evaluating the habitat chosen by the birds. In early October, 2 birds in a group of 3 were shot and killed by a pair of teenage boys. An eyewitness reported the shooting and state law enforcement agents were able to apprehend the suspects and move forward with pressing charges.  The case will be going to court in the very near future. The third bird’s transmitter failed and she disappeared at the same time the others were shot. With no additional data or sightings she is missing and presumed dead and foul play is suspected to be a factor in her disappearance. As a result of the shooting incident the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has stepped up our outreach and education efforts, including working to develop Whooping Crane‐related lesson plans and curriculums that will be incorporated into public school classes for middle and high school students.

Unfortunately in late November an additional bird was killed, likely by a predator, reducing the 2010 cohort to only 3 survivors. The 3 survivors remain separate from each other with 2 remaining in agricultural areas and the third returning to the pen and joining the new group of chicks.

2011 Cohort

On 1 December 2011, a second cohort of birds was shipped to Louisiana from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. As with the first cohort, the 16 new birds (7 males, 9 females) were initially held in the top‐netted pen. Permanent bands and transmitters were attached to their legs on 8‐9 December and the birds were released into the open pen on 27 December.

On 31 December L4‐10, a survivor from the first cohort, returned to the pen site and joined the 16 chicks. He had spent almost all summer and fall in the marsh just west of the release area and therefore had the strongest ties to the area. The 16 juveniles initially attempted to chase him away and while they continue to keep him away from the food shelter and the feeders they have generally become more tolerant of his presence. Food continues to be provided for the birds in the open pen but will be discontinued in the next few weeks.

The birds have shown a similar pattern of movement and pen use to the previous cohort – roosting outside the pen at night but using the pen during the day, primarily in the afternoons. However, with more water across the marsh this group of birds is beginning to range further away from the pen and use areas on the east side of the property which the first cohort did not use.

On 4 January, chick L14‐11 was handled to replace the original transmitter she had been given which was not functioning properly and during this time she apparently suffered an injury that left her unable to fly. On 19 January she was brought to the LSU vet school for evaluation and radiographs revealed a fractured leg coracoid bone. In order to give her the best chance of recovering the ability to fly and be released in Louisiana, surgery was performed on 27 January.

Surgeons at the vet school realigned the ends of the fractured bone and attached a small metal plate to stabilize the site. Her recovery is going well thus far and we are hopeful she will soon be able to fly again so she can live in the wild in LA with the rest of the cohort.

Unfortunately one chick, L12‐11, disappeared on 3 February. With no data from his transmitter and no sightings since then he is believed to be dead. As of 17 February, 18 (8 males, 10 females) birds remain alive in LA.

Article from The Unison Call, newsletter of the North American Crane Working Group

Group Can Keep Fighting for Whooping Crane

December 9, 2011
Article from Court House Service –

Thursday, December 08, 2011Last Update: 3:40 PM PT

Group Can Keep Fighting for Whooping Crane


(CN) – A federal judge refused to rule on claims that Texas is threatening the existence of whooping cranes by allowing diversion of the birds’ freshwater source. In a March 2010 federal complaint, The Aransas Project (TAP) claimed that mismanagement in the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the South Texas Watermaster has brought the whooping crane to the brink of extinction, with 23 birds dying in the harsh 2008-09 winter.

By the end of the season, the Guadalupe Basin crane population had allegedly declined to 247. TAP links the loss of birds in the basin to the diversion of freshwater from the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers.

Both sides, as well as intervening defendant Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, moved for summary judgment, but Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack roundly rejected the motions Monday.

Though Jack refused to grant TAP’s motion for partial summary judgment on standing, she also held that the environmentalists’ complaint survived its adversaries’ challenges. Jack devoted a section of her order to determining whether the commission could be held liable for water-diversion activity conducted by third parties. “Plaintiff has alleged that the TCEQ defendants are responsible for water permitting and water diversions from the waterways at issue, and the increased diversions have left less water for the cranes, resulting in a taking,” Jack wrote, abbreviating the commission defendant’s name. “This type of causation is sufficient for an ESA suit challenging governmental regulation,” she concluded.

Regulatory agencies like the TCEQ can be held responsible for harming an endangered species through its regulations, according to the 45-page order. “The court recognizes that ‘a governmental third party pursuant to whose
authority an actor directly exacts a taking of an endangered species may be deemed to have violated the provisions of the ESA,’ specifically the ‘taking’ provision in ESA Section 9,” Jack wrote.”The court concludes that plaintiff provides enough evidence of a ‘taking’ of whooping cranes, both in terms of deaths and non-fatal harm, such as malnourishment, to survive a motion for summary judgment,” she added.

The judge concluded by disagreeing that the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Burford v. Sun Oil required her to dismiss. That 1943 decision blocked a challenge to oil drilling that the Texas Railroad Commission had approved.

Whooping Crane Arrival 2011

December 3, 2011

Courtesy of Jim Foster Outdoors

Standing quietly on a fence line the three large birds paid me no attention as my camera clicked away at the approaching birds. One of the birds wore both a red and blue bands of a tracking equipped crane. These were a family of whooping cranes feeding in a field.

Their population reached a low 21 birds in the wild in the 1940s and again in 1954. The only remaining wild population now nests in northwestern Canada and spends the winter foraging in the wetlands and uplands of the central Texas coast.

Last year 283 were counted in Texas. This past summer there were 37 chicks fledged in Canada. Now biologists think that the Aransas-Wood Buffalo population might hit the 300-bird milestone in Texas for the first time this winter.

Whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. They are solid white except for black wing tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched. During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night.

Whooping cranes always migrate in small groups of fewer than four or five birds, and at times are seen roosting and feeding with flocks of the smaller and much more numerous sandhill crane.

The whooping crane has made a remarkable comeback, primarily due to protection from unregulated shooting and habitat conservation, the species still faces daunting obstacles, especially in the 2,400-mile migration path traversed each spring and fall. Two-thirds to three-fourths of the annual mortality in the population occurs during the approximately nine weeks the cranes may spend in migration each year.

Radio-marked birds detected in Texas earlier this fall are two of 22 birds being tracked in a study being conducted by Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory designed to help better understand habitat use and sources of mortality during migration.

Even on the wintering grounds, where private and public landowners in the stretch of coast between Port Aransas and Seadrift have collaborated to help protect whooping crane habitat

Of course thanks to the misinformation promoted by Al Gore some weaker minder biologists blame climate change on their slow recovery and as a future problem. It must me remembered that our climate has been changing for millions of years. Believing man has anything to do with it is vanity at it’s best and a real tragedy at worst. Messing with mother nature has backfired to many times so let’s do what we can and not mess with what we can’t.


To view the photgraphs taken by Jim Foster, please visit the Foster Outdoors Blog.