After more than 50 years, the largest captive-breeding-and-release program for whooping cranes is closing. Housed at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, the $1.5 million program was cut from the federal budget for fiscal year 2018, which began October 1, 2017.
Currently, there are approximately 442 whooping cranes—North America’s tallest birds and one of its rarest—in the wild and 161 in captivity across the U.S. The Patuxent center was home to 75 of those captive birds, which formed at least 29 breeding pairs. This captive flock will be moved to a variety of different locations, where, it is claimed, breeding-and-release programs will continue.
At the time the whooping crane program began at Patuxent in 1967, it was estimated that only 42 of the birds remained. Thus, it is widely esteemed and has been used as a model of wildlife restoration for other threatened and endangered species.
Now that the federal government has shut down the prestigious Patuxent program, can we be confident that other breeding centers—that may not have federal support and most certainly have strapped budgets—will be able to ensure that whooping cranes won’t soon go extinct?
Cutting-edge crane conservation
Today, all 442 of the world’s wild whooping cranes belong to one of four flocks—two that migrate and two that do not. The largest and only self-sustaining flock migrates from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. In 2001, an Eastern Population that migrates between Wisconsin and Florida was established as an insurance policy to guard against a single event (such as a disease outbreak, a hurricane or an oil spill) that could wipe out the wild, self-sustaining flock. The two introduced, nonmigratory groups reside in Florida and Louisiana.
Before the 1950s, the wild flock’s far North breeding grounds beyond Saskatchewan in the continent’s vast sub-Arctic territories remained a mystery. Then, by chance in 1954, a Canadian crew flying over Wood Buffalo National Park on their way back from fighting a fire noticed some white birds on the ground. The crew had accidentally discovered the whooping cranes’ nesting place. That discovery provided a means to save the birds from imminent extinction. Because whooping cranes lay two eggs per clutch but usually succeed in raising only a single chick, scientists believed that they could go in and safely remove one egg from each nest without decreasing the productivity of the wild flock. Eggs collected from 1967 to 1996 became the foundation for all captive breeding-and-release programs in North America.
But in at least one case, eggs weren’t the only things recovered.
The first bird taken in captivity was captured in Wood Buffalo in the mid 1960s. Canadian researchers doing a survey of the nests after the chicks began flying spotted one chick that didn’t take off with its whooping crane parents. Looking a little closer, the researchers noticed that the chick appeared to have a broken wing. They caught the chick; and with his capture, interest grew in staring a breeding program. The chick was subsequently named Canus—a contraction of Canada and U.S.—meant to signify the cooperation between the two countries in working to conserve and restore whooping cranes.
Canus taught the researchers at Patuxent a lot about general whooping crane biology, how to keep the birds in captivity, what their nutritional requirements are and how to design a pen that would work well for them. He was very important to the establishment of the captive flocks and took restoration efforts up to the level where they are now. Except for Canus, all but one of the other birds now in captivity came from eggs that were collected from the Wood Buffalo nests.*
Cutting-edge techniques were employed at Patuxent to rear the birds: since there were more eggs than whooping cranes to raise them, staff became surrogate parents for the five-inch-tall chicks. To prevent the birds from becoming tame, the humans donned crane costumes, guided their charges with crane hand puppets and didn’t speak in their presence.
In 1989, the facility transferred 22 whooping cranes to the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, with the intent of establishing a second migratory flock.
For several years, part of this Eastern Population migratory flock’s training involved teaching some of the whoopers to follow an ultralight aircraft that led them on an annual migration from Wisconsin to Florida. The Operation Migration ultralight project ended in 2015.
Can cranes continue after cuts?
Some, such as Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, believe that the current administration’s decision to cut the whooping crane program is a very poor example of a place where the federal government should try to save money. It’s predicted that although other breeding-and-release programs will continue, the Patuxent closure will still have an impact on the species. Whooping cranes are sensitive to disturbance and change, so there will certainly be a decrease in the captive birds’ production of eggs and chicks for the next few years as the Patuxent birds are transferred to new facilities.
For its part, the U.S. Geological Survey says the original mission of doing research to create a successful breeding program has been fulfilled. But I’m not sure that 442 wild whooping cranes left in the world should be considered completed work. Just as we are rushing into a world without gray wolves or grizzly bears, we may be sentencing the planet to a world without whooping cranes.
Should the birds slowly extinguish because of this move, I, as a Wisconsinite, will miss them as part of my home landscape, just as I already longingly remember the sight of the ultralights in the fall, leading young birds on their first migration adventure.
It was, I think, one of those far too rare, true partnerships between humans and the wild.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
*Much of the history on the whooping crane breeding-and-release program came from my 2013 book, Travel Wild Wisconsin.