Friday, January 6, 2012

Migration of whooping cranes halted in Alabama because of FAA regulation

The migration of nine young whooping cranes, led by an ultra-light aircraft, has been halted in Franklin County because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.

The hatchlings, part of a species facing possible extinction, have been traveling a migration route from Wisconsin to Florida by following the ultra-light aircraft since fall 2011.

The flight has been halted while the fish and wildlife service's partner in the effort, Operation Migration, seeks an exemption to an FAA prohibition on compensating pilots of ultra-light aircraft.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said once pilots are compensated for their work they are considered commercial operators, which require additional certification, training and health screenings.

"The issue in question is whether or not OM's pilots are flying 'for hire' or for the furtherance of a non-profit," David Sakrison, director of the board of Operation Migration wrote on the OM blog.

"The FAA has begun the process of evaluating a waiver to OM, exempting its pilots and aircraft from that rule. OM has always maintained that its pilots are hired for a wide range of non-flying skills and duties, and that they volunteer their time as pilots," he wrote.

The birds are being kept in Franklin County as OM and FAA work to resolve the issue, he wrote.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership "is considering alternatives for the whooping cranes if approval of a waiver is significantly delayed," Peter Fasbender, field project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Green Bay Ecological Services Field Office in New Franken, Wisconsin, wrote in a news statement.

"Options could include releasing the cranes at nearby refuges, or possibly transporting them to release sites in Florida at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges," Fasbender added.

Lunsford noted that Operation Migration voluntarily suspended the flight until the issue is resolved. The request for a waiver is being reviewed by federal officials, Lunsford said.

Here is a news release from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's partner managing this portion of the effort, Operation Migration, is cooperating with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to resolve regulatory issues about the flight.

The group has applied for a waiver to exempt them from the FAA regulation that prohibits compensating pilots of this category of aircraft.  This waiver, if approved, would allow the flight to continue.

Nine young whooping cranes began their first migration from Wisconsin following the ultra-lights in the fall of 2011.  Operation Migration began leading sandhill cranes as a study group in 2000, and has been piloting ultra-light aircraft to successfully lead whooping cranes on an Eastern Migratory route each year since 2001.  The FAA instituted the Light Sport Aircraft category in 2008.

The many international partners in the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP), are monitoring developments and hope for a speedy resolution on the waiver.

"WCEP is considering alternatives for the whooping cranes if approval of a waiver is significantly delayed," said Peter Fasbender, Field Project Leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Green Bay Ecological Services Field Office in New Franken, Wisconsin.

"Options could include releasing the cranes at nearby refuges, or possibly transporting them to release sites in Florida at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuges."

The whooping cranes are safe inside protective enclosures during the delay.  The migration has a traditional operations pause in December to allow the crew to return home for the holidays. 

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