Tom Stehn's Report: Challenges to Crane Survival
Feb. 16, 2007
Meet Tom Stehn
Whooping Crane Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As you read Tom's report this week . . .
  1. Underline words and phrases that give you clues about what can make survival hard for whooping cranes.

  2. Keep a list of things you wonder about whoopers or humans' effort to protect them.

  3. Send your questions to Ask the Expert starting March 23.

Dear Journey North,

An endangered species is a plant or animal that is so rare that it is in danger of becoming extinct. Saving an endangered species is never easy since usually many of the threats still remain that made the species become so rare in the first place, such as destruction of or development on the species' habitat.

Efforts to recover a species are usually taken in a series of small steps over a period of many years. This has been especially true for the whooping crane, a species that once had declined to only 21 birds and was literally one step away from extinction.

Protecting Endangered Whooping Cranes
Efforts to save the whooping crane began over 80 years ago. In the 1920s, people began to realize how rare the whooping crane was. A big early step forward was the establishment in 1937 of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, where I work.

We are currently celebrating the record 237 whooping cranes that winter at Aransas. There are more than three times as many whooping cranes at Aransas now than there were in 1982 when I first started working at the refuge. At that time, there were only 71 whooping cranes at Aransas.

Natural Tragedy in Florida Sets Back Recovery

The species is making progress. But we are also mourning the tragic loss of 17
juvenile whooping cranes in Florida on February 2. Efforts to recover the whooping crane were set back one year with that tragic loss. Violent thunderstorms and high winds swept across the Florida coast during the night, spawning deadly thunderstorms that took 20 human lives.

The young whooping cranes we called the "Class of 2006" were in a pen out in the remote salt marsh about 5 miles from land on the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The pen was covered by a net to keep the young birds separated from two older whooping cranes that were outside the pen. The older birds would attack the younger cranes and force the younger birds out of the pen. Also, the young birds may not pick a safe spot to spend the night and might get killed by a bobcat. Therefore, we had a net over the pen to keep the young birds safe.

The violent thunderstorms with very strong winds pushed a storm surge several feet high into the pen. The birds could not escape, and at least some of them drowned. The violent storms made it too dangerous for our biologists to launch a boat and get
out to let the young cranes out of the pen. We are still trying to figure out whether some of the birds may have been hit by lightning. One bird escaped and survived. Some people have nicknamed this bird “Houdini” after the famous magician who would escape from locked boxes while tied up and do other amazing tricks.

Crane Recovery Will Continue!
Our efforts to save the whooping crane are going to continue. We aren’t giving up, but the loss of 17 cranes all in one night shows just how fragile recovery efforts can be. We’ll figure out what happened and make changes next year so that this won’t happen again.

What if such a tragic loss had occurred in the western flock of whooping cranes wintering in Texas? For just that reason, biologists are trying to get at least 2 additional populations started in the wild as a safeguard against a catastrophe hurting any one of the flocks. In the western flock, the parent cranes teach their youngsters to migrate to Aransas on the Texas coast where they spend the winter. There is no way to get the Aransas birds to migrate to new wintering areas. That's why we have to start brand new populations using birds raised in captivity and teach them a migration route and how to survive in the wild. We have done this with great success for the past 6 years, with 63 whooping cranes now migrating on their own between Wisconsin and Florida. One pair has even hatched a young crane in Wisconsin and taught it how to migrate to Florida. Our work will continue for at least five more years or until we reach our goal of having 125 birds in that eastern flock.