Friday, October 23, 2015

Use of ultralights in guided whooping crane migration may end

The iconic images of an ultralight aircraft leading a group of endangered whooping cranes over the countryside could be coming to an end.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is recommending that the small aircraft used to guide young whooping cranes on their first fall migration to Florida from Wisconsin should be phased out, possibly as early as next fall.

However, the group that runs those flights and trains juvenile cranes to follow them is taking sharp exception to efforts to end its work. The group hopes to convince a consortium that manages whooping cranes in the eastern United States that the flights should continue.

"We strongly disagree," Joe Duff said of the Fish and Wildlife Service's recommendations.

Duff is chief executive officer of Operation Migration, and he suggested the cranes that have been under its management have faired better than other methods of releasing birds into the wild.

Nearly 250 whooping cranes have been released since 2001 in a Wisconsin-based program that the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated has cost more than $20 million in public and private funds. Of this, 181 whooping cranes have been involved in ultralight-led training.

Today, the whooping crane population stands at 93 cranes in the eastern United States, with many of those birds living in Wisconsin.

At nearly 5 feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. Until their reintroduction, whooping cranes were last recorded in Wisconsin in 1878. Cranes in the late 19th century were eradicated from the countryside by hunting and the loss of wetland habitat.

More recently, they have faced numerous troubles: Poor reproduction, predation, gunshots, swarms of black flies that have driven adults off their nests at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and a 2007 storm that surged through a Florida wildlife area and killed 17 juvenile cranes.

A second flock of migrating whooping cranes spends winters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and the summer in northern Alberta. Western whooping cranes were not reintroduced and their population has slowly improved. But wildlife officials and crane afficionados have long supported the idea of an eastern migratory flock in the event that drought or hurricanes wipe out birds in the West.

The proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service to end the use of ultralights is one of a series of possible changes that the agency is suggesting to improve the birds' prospects.

And the agency holds considerable sway. It administers the Endangered Species Act, manages wildlife refuges and oversees the annual distribution of captive-produced eggs whose chicks are then distributed to groups like Operation Migration to supplement the wild whooping crane population.

The agency painted a dour outlook in Oct. 15 report, noting that research shows the birds in Wisconsin and other parts of the eastern U.S. could become extinct in the next 75 years without better management techniques.

A chief recommendation: End or scale back on strategies that rely heavily on captivity and other artificial methods.

The service said that "current captive rearing techniques may not instill whooping cranes with the characteristics that allow them to successfully reproduce in the wild," as well as to avoid predators, cope with insects and hone their parenting skills.

In its report, the agency lauded the past use of ultralights and the role of Operation Migration for its "pioneering" methods and the role it's played creating a migration route and raising awareness for crane conservation.

"They've really been an important player," said Wade Harrell, whooping crane coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the agency also said in its report that the use of aircraft is "more artificial and costly than any other currently used method and does not appear to yield substantially better results." It plans to work with Operation Migration and others to "phase out ultralight-led rearing."

Harrell said he didn't know whether that would happen a year from now or later.

The recommendations will next go to a consortium, the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a nine-member group of government and private organizations that manage the birds with a goal of creating self-sustaining populations.

An influential member of the partnership is the Baraboo-based International Crane Foundation. It works with Operation Migration. But it also has other projects, including a method of releasing new chicks into the wild in the company of older cranes. The young birds then follow the other cranes south.

"We want to work together for what is best for the bird," said Crane Foundation spokeswoman Anne Sayers. "We appreciate these recommendations to get us started on that."

Duff said he was troubled the agency posted the recommendations on its website. He thought that the matter would be discussed at a meeting of the partnership in January. He said Operation Migration has raised and spent more than $10 million to train cranes to fly south. The back roads journey to Florida — involving pilots, a ground crew, a nightly encampment and fencing of the birds and ever-changing logistical challenges — can take months to complete.

In a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Services, Duff said that "denigrating proven successful release heavy-handed to say the least," and he complained that the agency used incomplete data that puts the results of his group's work in a false light.

The question mark over the future of Operation Migration also puts fundraising in a quandary, said Duff.

Harrell said he hopes Duff's group can continue to play a role and he emphasized that the prime issue for cranes is keeping human interaction to a minimum.

In the beginning, "we had to have a guided migration," Harrell said. "We don't need a guided migration anymore."

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