After the disappointing November 2019 ruling of “probation” for the poacher responsible for the 2018 shooting death of adult male Louisiana Whooper, L8-11 – the first Whooping Crane with his partner, L7-11, in the new Louisiana non-migratory flock to nest and lay eggs – my thoughts turned to public awareness of these endangered birds. Poachers are seldom charged under the Endangered Species Act, because prosecutors have to prove that the poacher knew that the killed animal was endangered. Even before the 1918 passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and biologists and others sounded the alarm that Whooping Cranes were headed toward extinction, Whooping Cranes had been in the public eye – whether as a target or as something to be protected. To all the Whooper “educators” out there – the scientists, conservation groups and concerned individuals who have worked through the decades, and continue to work in loose tandem with one another, toward the common goal of bringing an awareness of Whooping Cranes to others – thank you.
The Whooping Crane once ranged over most of North America, from the Arctic
coast south to central Mexico, and from Utah east to New Jersey, South Carolina, and Florida. Within historic times, the breeding range extended northwest from central Illinois, through Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to the general vicinity of Edmonton, Alberta. Estimates from the mid-1800s put the total Whooping Crane population at 1,200 to 1,500, but by the 1890s breeding populations of the cranes had disappeared from the heart of their historic breeding range in the north-central United States. By the early 1900s, Whooping Crane numbers had plummeted.
What caused this rapid decline? The cranes’ known wetland breeding grounds were altered and disturbed as settlers plowed the native prairies and drained marshes for farming. Whooping Cranes also were hunted, and their eggs collected, leading to increased pressure on an already small population.
In 1918 the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it illegal to hunt Whooping Cranes. Despite this and other early protection efforts the Whooping Crane population continued to decline. By the late 1930s, only two small flocks remained: a few nonmigratory birds around the tallgrass prairies near White Lake in southwestern Louisiana and one migratory flock that wintered in southeastern Texas and summered in western Canada.
In 1940 a hurricane “drove the birds in to the rice fields and most of them were shot by hunters or killed by the storm,” and the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild dropped to just 21 birds by the mid-40s. In 1950 the last individual in the Louisiana population, “Mac,” was removed from the wild leaving a total of only 34 surviving Whooping Cranes in the migratory flock.
Because of the critically low number of Whooping Cranes, biologists proposed a program of captive breeding. Beginning in 1967, eggs were transferred from the breeding grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, Maryland. The captive Whooping Cranes at Patuxent first produced eggs in 1975, and gradually the captive flock at Patuxent grew. This was the beginning of a long, complicated process involving the efforts of many individuals, conservation organizations and government agencies to protect the endangered Whooping Cranes. (The Patuxent captive breeding program ended in 2018.)In 1986, the Whooping Crane Recovery Plan was created by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team, a group of crane biologists and officials from the United States and Canada.
The results have been mixed. In 1975 biologists began an ambitious, first-time reintroduction attempt to establish a migratory Whooping Crane population in the Rocky Mountain states, placing Whooping Crane eggs in nests of would-be surrogate Sandhill Cranes at the Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. This approach was discontinued when it was shown that the Whooping Cranes imprinted on the Sandhills and would not mate with Whooping Cranes. In 1993 biologists began a project to reintroduce a nonmigratory population of Whooping Cranes to Florida, but discontinued the program due to losses from predation, disease and reproductive failure. In 2001 the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) initiated a project to restore a migratory population in eastern North America using ultralight-led migration. A variation of the WCEP project continues but is plagued by ongoing reproductive failure and poaching. In 2011 a reintroduction project began to establish a nonmigratory population of the species in Louisiana. Despite poaching losses, the Louisiana reintroduction project is gaining traction as cohort members are starting to breed, nest and successfully fledge young. The goal of all the experimental populations is to achieve a self-sustaining population to help safeguard the Aransas-Wood Buffalo wild population.