Whoopers for Wisconsin?
    A Simulation Activity for Grades 7-12

    Contributed by Jennifer Rabuck, Park Ranger at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

Wisconsin has been chosen as the new summer home and breeding grounds for a new flock of wild migratory whooping cranes to help safeguard the species from extinction. But who decided on Wisconsin, and how did they decide? In this activity, students participate in a simulation of environmental issues surrounding the Eastern whooping crane reintroduction project.

Whooping cranes are one of our best-known endangered species. They symbolize the struggle to maintain the vanishing creatures of our world. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners that comprise The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) are taking steps to reintroduce whooping cranes into eastern North America.

Whooping crane survival depends on additional, separated populations. About 1400 whooping cranes existed in 1860, but hunting and habitat loss reduced their numbers to fewer than 20 birds in the early 1940s. Luckily, these birds didn't die out. In the decades since, the species has experienced a modest comeback — but all the wild migratory birds are concentrated in a single flock (there were only 174 individuals in fall 2001) that breeds in Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Scientists have long recognized the risk of having all of the wild whooping cranes using one wintering and breeding location. With all of the cranes concentrated in one area, the entire population could be wiped out by disease, bad weather, or human impacts.

After a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the Endangered Species Act requires that a recovery plan be designed. Whooping crane conservation is guided by a Recovery Plan and a U.S.-Canadian Whooping Recovery Team. The Recovery Team includes specialists from both countries. The team recommended in 1999 that another migratory flock of whooping cranes be established to safeguard the species. The goal of the Recovery Plan is to establish, in addition to the Aransas/Wood Buffalo wild flock, two breeding populations of at least 25 pairs each, One breeding population (75 whoopers in 2001) now lives in year-round in Florida as a nonmigratory flock. The second additional breeding population—starting with 10 young whooping cranes—will be reintroduced in 2001 as a wild flock that migrates in eastern North America as they did long ago.

Even though they are members of an endangered species, the new Eastern flock is designated as a Nonessential Experimental Population (NEP) — "experimental" because it will be isolated from other populations of the same species, and "nonessential" because they will not be esssential to the survival of the entire species. Under this designation, the reintroducd whooping cranes will not receive full Endangered Species Act protection, which will allow greater management flexibility and also resolve some possible conflicts between people and whooping crane conservation.

The Whooping Crane Recovery Team carefully planned the creation of the new Eastern migratory flock of whooping cranes. In deciding where to create a new flock, they wanted to keep all newly established flocks far away from the existing wild flock. to minimize the risk of transmitting disease or behavioral quirks that could affect survival of the wild flock. The Team proposed Wisconsin as the summer and breeding area for the new flock, with Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida as the wintering site. If the new flock becomes successfully established, the birds might gradually spread north and west on both breeding and wintering grounds, and whooping cranes will grace the skies over eastern North America for the first time in over a century.

Many steps were necessary before the Whooping Crane Eastern Reintroduction Project could take place. First, experts had to find out if Wisconsin has suitable breeding habitat available. Second, Wisconsin and Florida and all states in the proposed flyway for this proposed new flock had to give their approval. Third, the plan had to be approved by the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Councils, as the new flock would migrate in a diagonal path from one flyway to the other. A trial migration experiment was carried out in 2000, using the whoopers' non-endangered sandhill crane cousins in a "dress rehearsal" for the whooping crane reintroduction. The ultralight-led migration to teach the cranes their migration route from Wisconsin to Florida was a success, paving the way to perform the same migration experiment with endangered whooping cranes in fall 2001. The Wisconsin habitat assessment study was conducted by consultant John Cannon, working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Lesson Summary
Now we ask students to step back to the time when the Wisconsin site assessment was actually underway—and to play the roles of various groups that had a stake in the outcome. Students will be divided into small interest groups with different positions on plans for this historic reintroduction of whooping cranes. Using information presented to them and their own research and background knowledge, each group will prepare arguments supporting their position to a panel of classmates. The panel will then come to a decision based on the arguments from the groups. Students gather and present facts based upon a certain viewpoint, think of issues from several perspectives, understand the opposing forces that come into play on environmental issues, realize how important it is to understand all sides of an issue, and develop discussion and debate skills.

Materials Needed


  1. Briefly explain that a simulation activity involves adopting various viewpoints and role playing. Share the background above and explain the format of the activity: Each of seven equal-size groups will arrive at a certain position concerning the site selection of the cranes' summer home. One group will be the "Board" that will make a final decision. Each group's task will be to develop arguments and a five-minute presentation to give to the group that serves as the "Whooping Crane Recovery Team."

  2. Explain that three areas in Wisconsin were initially proposed to be assessed as the first release site for the new Eastern migratory flock: Goose Fortress, Frog Haven, and Waterfowl Haven (fictitious names). Pass out to everyone "Three Proposed Sites," a page that describes each of these sites. Tell students that it is up to their group to determine the qualities and drawbacks of each site in considering the position their group will take.

  3. Review your role as Facilitator and share theguidelines on your role sheet with students. Download, print, and pass out one Role Assignment (see materials list above) to each group as well as the background information detailed in the materials list above. You may wish to scan materials and present unfamiliar vocabulary words. For example, staging areas are those places where large numbers of birds aggregate before or during migration. Impoundments are human-created ponds with dams to help control water levels.

  4. Provide adequate time for groups to meet, discuss their positions, and plan their presentations. As facilitator, you may want to circulate among the various interest groups and encourage brainstorming potential difficulties and issues for their consderation. During this time, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team will need to come up with a schedule for the interest groups' presentations and the rules under which groups should present. Set the date for the Whooping Crane Recovery Team to announce their decision.

  5. Allow the Recovery Team to give their decision and rationale. They will reveal their evaluation criteria. Ask them how they felt during their roles. Discuss the importance of a real-life hearing like this. Invite students to share or journal about insights they gained, and to identify other current issues for additional simulation activities.

  6. After the interest group presentations and while the Whooping Crane Recovery Team makes its final decision, explore how the groups felt about what they did. You may wish to discuss questions such as these:
  • How did you feel about the issue before the activity? After the activity?
  • Which of you really believed in your own arguments? Could you detect when students were arguing points that they didn't believe in? How?
  • Did anyone become aware of new perspectives during the exercise? How did this affect your thinking?
  • What did the activity reveal about the difficulty of making the decision?


Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the
Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).