Tag Archives: whooping cranes

Feds could ground ultralight-led whooping crane migration

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided it will no longer support the use of ultralight aircraft to help young whooping cranes migrate from Wisconsin to Florida each fall.

Officials announced late last week that this season’s ultralight-guided flights to the birds’ wintering home will be the last.

Operation Migration is a nonprofit group that has led the mechanized migrations for 15 years. The Canadian-based group has opposed the end of ultralights, saying ultralight assistance has helped cranes survive.

Fish and Wildlife officials say one reason for the decision was a lack of success the birds have seen in producing chicks and raising them in the wild.

The public-private effort has spent more than $20 million to help the flock. 

Operation Migration warns: FWS ‘visions’ end to ultralight guided release of whooping cranes

On Oct. 15 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted a document outlining its vision for the next five-year strategic plan for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership and the Eastern Migratory Population.

In their vision document, FWS proposed radical changes to the release methods used for the Eastern Migratory Population including ending the use of the ultralight-guided migration technique in favor of the Direct Autumn Release and other, as yet, untested methods. 

The reason is that the FWS feels the ultralight release method is “artificial” yet they have provided no data to back their claim that this is detrimental to the Whooping cranes. Alternatively, if you read our response, you will see that using data derived from the WCEP database, the UL method is the most successful thus far in terms of survivability, migratory behavior, and breeding success. 

In fact, the UL method most closely replicates the natural life history of the species in that, just as their parents would, OM teaches the young Whooping cranes a suitable migration route and cares for them until the following spring — just as their parents would.  

It is important to point out that, while the FWS is but one member of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, it has control over egg allocations each year. The FWS recommends prioritizing allocation of eggs for use in methods with shorter periods of captivity and more limited exposure to costumed humans.

A fact: Time spent in captivity and exposure to costumed humans is greater with other release methods.

Whooping cranes hatch at the captive breeding centers in May/June. The other methods involve holding cranes in captivity at the propagation centers until they are moved to the release sites in mid-September or later. The UL cranes are moved from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to the White River Marsh at an average age of 46 days. From this point on, they are being exercised and learning important flight skills, just as they would with their natural parents. Cranes raised under the other release methods are not allowed to fly until such time as they are moved to the reintroduction areas in September or later.

Cranes held in captivity throughout the normal fledging period are at a disadvantage to their wild counterparts in that their flight muscles are not as well developed and they lack flying skills normally learned earlier in their life history. These skills are important to avoid predators, power lines and other obstacles. UL birds learn those skills and develop that endurance well before they encounter such dangers in the wild.

A fact: The UL method has resulted in higher first year and annual survival thereafter.

A fact: The only wild-produced crane colts in the Eastern Population which have survived to fledge resulted from ultralight/ultralight pairs.

Since the 2011 move to White River and Horicon Marsh, almost five years of work has been done by the non-profit WCEP partners.

In using only data from the first 10 years of this project to justify their Vision Document, FWS has painted the entire Eastern Migratory Population with a Necedah brush. It has ignored almost one-third of the available data and discounted all that has been invested in the Wisconsin Rectangle so far. The timing of their recommendation to end UL releases is even more short-sighted when one considers that Whooping cranes don’t typically breed until five years of age and, even then, don’t generally produce more than one offspring per season.

We are now on the cusp of determining if these cranes can successfully breed in the blackfly-free habitat of the Wisconsin Rectangle. Ending the UL program now is premature.

Heather Ray is the director of development for Operation Migration.

Get involved …

Operation Migration is on the Web at operationmigration.org.

Read WiG’s cover story on Operation Migration and the effort to rescue whooping cranes from the edge of extinction.

Whooping cranes arrive in Wisconsin to train for fall migration

The 2013 class of birds that will follow ultralight aircraft to Florida has arrived in Wisconsin from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md.

Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership announced on July 16 that Windway Capital provided the aircraft and the pilots to ferry the young cranes from Maryland to Wisconsin. This transfer was the 30th such flight that Windway has made with endangered whooping cranes on board their aircraft.

The cranes were taken to the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County, Wis. This is the third year that this training site will be used. The cranes will spend the summer with Operation Migration pilots and field staff getting acclimated, gaining strength and learning to follow the aircraft.

This fall, Operation Migration will guide the young birds on their first southward migration to the Gulf coast of Florida, the cranes’ winter home.

The birds are a portion of the 13th group of endangered whooping cranes to take part in a project conducted by WCEP, a coalition of public and private organizations that is reintroducing a migratory population of whooping cranes into eastern North America, part of their historic range.

An additional batch of chicks will be migrating south as part of WCEP’s Direct Autumn Release project. Biologists from the International Crane Foundation rear whooping crane chicks that are released in the fall in the company of older cranes, from which the young birds learn the migration route. The DAR cranes will be released on the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge in Dodge County, Wis., early this fall.

Most of the whooping cranes released in previous years spend the summer in central Wisconsin.

WCEP asks anyone who encounters a whooping crane in the wild to 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.

WCEP 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.

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