Saturday, September 17, 2016

No more ultralight aircraft for Wisconsin whooping crane migration

A major shift in strategy in managing endangered whooping cranes begins this week with the arrival in Wisconsin of juvenile cranes that no longer will rely on ultralight aircraft to guide them during fall migration.

The slow-moving aircraft will be absent for the first time since 2001, when a public-private partnership launched a novel reintroduction plan involving ultralights and humans dressed to look like cranes.

Instead, nine young cranes flown to Wisconsin on Wednesday by private plane from a federal facility in Patuxent, Md., will be paired with adult cranes in the White River Marsh State Wildlife Area in Green Lake County and other areas.

Three other cranes hatched at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo will be released in the coming weeks — all with the hope they bond with adults and follow them south for the winter.

Efforts to bring back whooping cranes to the eastern United States has cost more than $20 million and has resulted in a population of about 100. Most of the 5-foot-tall birds spend their spring, summer and fall in Wisconsin.

But cranes have struggled with reproduction, and experts have questioned whether extensive human interaction has been detrimental to parenting.

“They know how to survive in the wild,” said Davin Lopez, a conservation biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, one of the government agencies involved in crane reintroduction.

“But what they are not doing is raising chicks.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in January it would not support the use of ultralights in migrations and wanted to de-emphasize the use of humans dressed in baggy, crane-like outfits who tended to the birds until they were old enough to join adults in the wild.

Starting this year, the reintroduction is relying on parent rearing — not human caretakers. When the chicks hatched in Baraboo and at the federal Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, they lived in captivity with adult cranes until they are released.

The idea is to employ a more natural method of raising birds where the chicks learn behaviors and skills directly from adults — and not human surrogates, say those involved in the project.

Operation Migration, the nonprofit group that pioneered the use of ultralights, will remain involved in crane reintroduction.

The group’s co-founder, Joe Duff, said Operation Migration is working with other groups to bring young cranes to locations where adult cranes are living and are closely monitored with telemetry.

Knowing their habits and parenting experience, Duff said the chicks will be introduced to adults thought to be the most capable of teaching them to survive and migrate.

There are limitations, however. Duff said many adult cranes with the best reputations for parenting live in or near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Tomah. Crane crew won’t place chicks there because of longstanding problems with black flies. The flies are known to force cranes to abandon nests.

The whooping crane community will likely learn a lot in this next phase of reintroduction.

“This has been considered a transition year,” Duff said.

In more ways than one.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service, which controls most captive egg production, said they were considering not supporting ultralights, Operation Migration was not pleased.

The group launched an online protest nearly a year ago on, and in a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service, Duff said, “To be blunt, we feel as if you are looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

With a finite number of eggs, groups like Operation Migration “were kind of competing for birds — it made for this division among friends,” Duff said Wednesday.

This fall, he is emphasizing cooperation.

“Our ambition is to safeguard whooping cranes and make them a self-sustaining population,” Duff said.

They disappeared from the region in the late 19th century — victims of over-hunting and other factors.

More than 250 whooping cranes have been released into the wild since 2001. The current population in the wild is about 100, according to the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

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