Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Whooping Cranes in Texas and Louisiana

Whooping Cranes / Photo by Steve Hillebrand (USFWS)
Following up on yesterday's post, here are the current statuses of the other two Whooping Crane flocks in the United States. The cranes mentioned yesterday are part of an eastern migratory flock that conservationists have been trying to establish to help the species recover. That flock spends its summers in Wisconsin and winters in Florida. The cranes in the eastern flock can all trace their ancestry to captive birds from the western flock, which breeds at Woods Buffalo National Park in northern Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. This is the only Whooping Crane flock that I would call truly wild, as its breeding and migration are unassisted by humans. That flock may face trouble this winter thanks to a severe drought.
“We’re in the midst of a drought compounded by the presence of red tide,” says Dan Alonso, manager of Texas’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is an over-wintering ground for the cranes.

Lack of freshwater has made the waters too salty for crane dietary staples like blue crab and wolf berries, as well as boosting toxic red tide. With nothing to eat, surviving the winter will be a challenge and malnourished cranes may not have the energy and resources to return to their breeding grounds, Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.

Water for whooping cranes is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2010 by The Aransas Project against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Project pointed to water management during a 2009 drought—a winter in which 23 cranes died—as causing harm to a federally-recognized endangered species. The two-week trial concluded in December, and the outcome could force the commission to consider cranes in water management.

For now, the Aransas refuge is taking its own steps to save freshwater, including collecting rainwater. Alonso noted that about 9,000 acres of proscribed burns are planned to open habitat for the cranes. He also asked that visitors keep their distance from the birds, to prevent stressing the cranes further during these tough times.

Despite the drought, Alonso remains hopeful regarding the birds: “We do hope to break that record of 300 cranes.”
Meanwhile there is an attempt underway to create a third, presumably nonmigratory, flock in Louisiana.
Despite the rough start, state officials are moving forward with plans to bring more cranes to the White Lake area, about 40 miles southeast of Lake Charles. They released a second group of 16 young birds into the marshes in late December.

Biologists see the state's wetlands as the best chance to establish a new population of whooping cranes in the wild and to improve the odds for the long-term survival of the tallest North American bird....

Officials want three distinct groups of cranes because the Aransas flock is at risk. The wintering grounds are vulnerable to rising seas, storms and chemical spills, while drought and diversions of water for growing cities have increased the marshes' salinity, killing the crabs the cranes eat....

Louisiana was home to whooping cranes until 1950. With the species near extinction, biologists removed the last one from the area for its protection.

Experts attribute the species' decline in the state to hunting activity, flooding and the conversion of tall-grass prairies into rice fields. Still, they see the area as an ideal place for the birds because of its remoteness and abundant fresh water.