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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A grim winter ahead for Whooping Cranes?

The extreme drought in Texas and the way that the state manages its available water may have far-reaching effects on the future of the endangered Whooping Crane. The cranes that spend their winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast depend upon an ample population of blue crabs to sustain them through those months, but a reduced supply of water combined with an extreme bloom of red algae, has hampered the production of crabs this year. At the same time, the number of Whooping Cranes returning to the coast this autumn may actually set a new record since the time that the population of the birds dipped into the teens in the 1940s. There may be as many as 300 of the big birds at the refuge when all the migrants from Canada have made their way here. This will only serve to increase the pressure on the blue crabs.

This, of course, has not gone unnoticed by supporters of the birds, which include many businesses and residents of the Rockport area which benefit from the ecotourists who flock (pun intended) to the area from around the world to view the magnificent cranes in their natural surroundings. They are part of a suit that has been filed against the state of Texas to dispute the way that the state controls its water supply. The contention is that too much water is removed from the streams and rivers that flow into Aransas Bay, thus further endangering both the blue crabs and ultimately the Whooping Cranes. Not to mention the economy of the area that to some extent depends upon them. The case is being litigated this week and it will be very interesting to see the outcome.

The outcome of that case will not, however, help the cranes this winter. The food supply for the coming season is already set and we can only hope that we do not see a repeat of the winter a couple of years ago when 23 of the birds died as a result of starvation during the winter.

Meantime, the effort to establish another viable flock of the birds in Louisiana continues with the release this week of sixteen subadult birds to the area. This is the second release this year. The earlier release of ten birds has not fared well. Only three of the birds survive. Two of the birds were killed by predators and one was euthanized due to illness. Two are missing and unaccounted for, while two more were shot by two teenage hunters. It is hoped that the prosecution of the hunters and the publicity surrounding it may serve to offer some protection to the remaining birds.

And then there is the flock of juveniles that were hatched and raised in captivity in Wisconsin and are now being led by ultralight to their winter home in Florida. So far the migration has encountered many days of difficult weather in which they were unable to fly. They have made it as far as Kentucky during their two month flight, but they still have a long way to go.  

All of this just emphasizes how very difficult it is to pull an animal back from the brink of extinction and give it a reasonable chance at long-term survival. Much better to ensure that the animal doesn't get to that brink in the first place.

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