WHOOPING CRANE RECOVERY PROGRAM
MAY - SEPTEMBER, 1998
by Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
The following is an update on whooping crane recovery activities.
WHOOPING CRANE RECOVERY TEAM (WCRT)
The WCRT met in Calgary August 12-14 with the Captive Management Team meeting the following day. All 10 team members and 30 participants total attended. Many important decisions were made. Team recommendations were then sent to the US Fish & Wildlife (USFWS) Regional Office (RO) in Albuquerque. Decisions were made in September supporting all WCRT recommendations. A national news release on the upcoming fall whooping crane migration and WCRT decisions was sent out by RO Public Affairs at the end of September.
Major decisions included the following:
1. That the next whooping crane reintroduction would be a migratory flock.
2. That the Audubon Institute in New Orleans was approved as a new breeding center for whooping cranes, with 5 pairs to be shipped to that facility by the year 2003.
3. That a flock be established between Wisconsin and Chassahowitzka NWR in Florida, pending outcome of a study to be conducted by Dr. John Cannon of the suitability of Wisconsin as a nesting site. Future flock expansion could later occur into Manitoba and Louisiana. Operation Migration was endorsed for carrying out this reintroduction once all the required permissions are obtained.
4. No more releases of whooping cranes in the Rocky Mountains will take place until certain biological and political criteria are met.
5. The allocation of captive whooping crane chicks was set in the following priorities;
a. Maintenance of captive flocks
b. Florida non-migratory releases
c. Wisconsin/Manitoba releases
d. Off corridor experiments considered essential to FL, WI, or propagation.
f. Other experiments.
6. That the coordinators were authorized to approve a request for more whooping cranes in the Rockies provided chicks are available according to the approved priority, and the experimenters can obtain the appropriate federal, state, and flyway approvals.
The Team at this "experimental" reintroduction phase did not want any potential mixing between reintroduced whooping cranes and the natural Aransas/Wood Buffalo population. This kept the Team from selecting a Manitoba to Louisiana route. If an eastern reintroduction proves to be successful, then these alternate locations are probable expansion areas.
Most of the discussions with the Regional Office centered around the Rocky Mountains. The Regional Director agrees that biological uncertainties need to be addressed about the suitability of the Rockies for whooping cranes, and is very aware of the political concerns with opposition from the Pacific Flyway Council and States. Until these parties WANT more whooping cranes, it would be difficult to get permission to place more whooping cranes in the west. Yellowstone National Park authorities are pushing hard for more whooping cranes. I conducted interviews with the Denver Post and AP wire service, mostly focused on the Team decisions about the Rocky Mountains. The Denver Post came out with an editorial endorsing the release of more whoopers in the west.
In mid-September, contacts were made with Wisconsin and Region 3 informing them of WCRT recommendations. After the word spread around both departments, permission was received for Dr. Cannon to start his assessment of Wisconsin marshes.
Letters covering all WCRT motions were drafted at the end of September. These included:
1. Letter to Patuxent about the essential need to continue their crane research and captive propagation experiments,
2. Letter to the State of Texas asking them to work in conjunction with USFWS and other parties to ensure conservation of the blue crab resource at Aransas. The blue crab population is the primary food source of wintering whooping cranes, and indications are that crabs are being over-harvested commercially.
3. Letter urging Region 3 of the USFWS to incorporate Dr. Richard Urbanek as the Project Biologist for the eastern whooping crane reintroduction project.
Tasks completed by the Coordinator included writing weekly reports on the spring migration for "Journey North", an education group based in Minneapolis, that posts the report on their Internet web page. A report of Aransas activities entitled "Whooping Cranes During the 1997-98 Winter" was completed in May. The biannual report for the period December, 1997-April, 1998, was completed, along with a report entitled "Issues Related to Establishment of a New Migratory Population of Whooping Cranes" sent to the Recovery Team and other crane folks. An article was written for the summer edition of the Unison Call newsletter. Work has begun to revise the Federal-State Contingency Plan for the Protection of Whooping Cranes.
Permit activities included the following:
1. Obtain whooping crane salvage permit for importing non-living whooping crane materials into the U.S. This will be used initially to ship whooping crane blood from Calgary to the National Wildlife Health Center for disease testing.
2. Apply for CITES import permit to import two chicks from Calgary to Patuxent for eventual release in Florida.
3. Renew Endangered Species permit for all whooping crane activities in the U.S.
4. Obtain both Endangered Species and State Collecting permits for Aransas NWR.
Budget matters are another large part of coordinator duties. After much delay, contract money payments were made to ICF and Florida for FY 1998. Memos sent to the RO in May resulted in obtaining monies (4.2K) for a budget shortfall at ICF, and 1K for disease testing at NWHC. No monies were ever obtained for travel for the whooping crane coordinator or WCRT travel to Calgary. This resulted in overspending by $7.1K of the 1998 whooping crane endangered species budget. A budget request of $492K for FY 99 was submitted at the end of June and was used as part of a Director's Initiative for Endangered Species that asked for submission of projects totalling 350K in August.
When the Coordinator position was moved from Albuquerque to Aransas, seven boxes of whooping crane files were shipped to the refuge. I finished reorganizing these files.
Communications with various parties were made about the proposed spring hunting season for snow geese and possible impacts to whooping cranes. In general, the snow goose migration occurs ahead of the whooper migration with little overlap in the U.S. except for a few early whooper migrants.
Arrangements were made with the Florida State Museum in Gainesville to hold whooping crane specimens from the Florida reintroduction project. Many of these specimens resulted from bobcat predation and only certain parts (hollow bones, wing feathers, etc.) are usable.
One specimen of a cross-fostered whooping crane killed by a powerline in Colorado was shipped from the NWHC to Alamosa/Monte Vista NWR where it will be used as a display. A specimen of a juvenile was given to Minidoka NWR in Idaho, and one adult went to Westfield College in Massachusetts. Other requests received that are being processed were from the U. of Saskatchewan, North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences, and U. of Nevada Las Vegas.
All the whooping cranes started the migration by the end of April, 1998 with no cranes remaining over the summer.
Events related to the Corps of Engineers Section 216 study included placement of 4 miles (20,887 feet) of cement mats at a cost of $2 million to stop erosion along the Intracoastal Waterway. Areas protected included the length of the Victoria Barge Canal (7,269 feet) within critical habitat at Welder Flats, and many refuge sections (13,618 feet). The original bid estimates were under the anticipated cost so an additional 3,000 feet of shoreline were targeted near Rattlesnake Island. An additional contract was made to repair geotube wave barriers protecting the created marsh at Disposal Area 128. It is hoped that funding will be appropriated for 1999 to complete this multi-year effort to protect all important areas within critical habitat of the whooping crane.
In the spring, personnel from the Texas Oil Spill Response Network and the U.S. Coast Guard looked at small water openings leading into whooping crane marshes and made recommendations for control of chemical spills. All participants agreed that anchors and T-posts would be easy to place in the marsh so that permanent anchoring systems would not be needed. Training of the Aransas Refuge staff was held August 20 in first responder boom deployment.
Oil companies drilled wells on both the refuge and Matagorda Island during the summer. Some additional seismic exploration also took place in coastal bays. The Corps of Engineers dredged portions of the Intracoastal Waterway in Aransas Bay and placed spoil material within DA 131 on the refuge.
Samedin Oil Company was contacted in May to remove a portion of abandoned pipeline that was exposed due to shoreline erosion of Bludworth Island. This pipe was visible to the public taking commercial whooping crane tours. The company removed the exposed section in September. ARCO removed portions of an abandoned pipeline across San Antonio Bay with endpoints on Matagorda Island and the refuge boat canal.
Texas experienced a severe drought during the summer. The refuge received only 1.6 inches of rain between April and July. Only a trace of rain fell during May and June. However, the drought was shattered with two tropical storms at the end of the summer that dumped 11.6 inches of rain. Total rainfall in August and September was 14.1 inches. Extremely high tides during the storms completely covered the coastal marshes. Bay salinities dropped from 30 to 25 parts per thousand, and marsh salinities from 35 to 19. The rains filled all refuge dugouts so that the cranes will have plenty of freshwater this winter if salinities get above 23 ppt.
Acorn counts conducted in mid-September found acorns in all burn units, with the mast crop rated as very good. Thus, a complete schedule of burns will be planned for on the refuge this winter to provide acorns for the whoopers.
Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP)
Nesting was about one week ahead of average this spring. Water levels were rated as good, but the Park experienced a drought during the summer which may have hurt production. CWS Whooping Crane Coordinator Brian Johns located 48 nests and 35 chicks with 10 sets of twins as of June 5. One nest was abandoned and both eggs were transported to the Calgary Zoo. One of the two chicks survived, but later injured a wing and was not suitable for reintroduction in Florida.
In mid-June, I traveled to Wood Buffalo with Pilot Jim Bredy in the USFWS Partanavia aircraft to do production surveys with Brian Johns. All color-banded birds were accounted for, including two birds that had been "hiding" during surveys the past couple years. The twin-engine Partanavia increases safety during low level flights, allowing color bands to be read. Only with the added power of the twin engines is it safe to drop below the tops of the trees in open areas to read bands. One more nest was located, with the 49 total tying the record for most nests set last summer. Production equalled 47 chicks, including 12 sets of twins. This compares with 58 chicks, including 16 sets of twins in 1997. By June 20, only 32 chicks with no twins remained. Of the 12 pairs with twins in early June, 10 of the pairs had a single chick remaining and two had lost both chicks by the end of the mid-June surveys. Last summer, 43 chicks and 4 sets of twins were present in the latter part of June. Surveys done by Brian in mid-August located 24 chicks still alive. With this production, the population is expected to 190 this winter.
Park Ranger/graduate student Doug Bergeson radioed six chicks a few days after hatching by gluing transmitters on the feathers. Three of the six chicks (always the smaller in a set of twins) died, whereas the three larger chicks survived, with maximum time of carrying the transmitter 9 days before it fell off. Disease seemed to be a factor in two of the three deaths of the younger chicks. From a blind, Doug observed one nest in the Nyarling from which only one egg hatched. The young chick was fed dragonfly larvae by the adults which appears to be the major food item for the chicks.
There are currently between 54-56 whooping cranes in Florida (two birds have non-functional radio transmitters) . Seven pairs have formed and built nests, but no eggs have been produced.
A problem of flightlessness due to molting was documented in 25 birds this spring, primarily all 3-year-old birds. All but 3 of the whoopers survived this period by remaining in marsh habitat, with the losses due to bobcats. It is a mystery why, this year for the first time, the birds become flightless.
Twenty-two captive whooping crane juveniles were released during the 1997-98 winter. Mortality was extremely high with only seven surviving. Five of 7 ICF chicks survived, but only 2 of 15 Patuxent chicks. Subadult mortality was also high, with 15 birds lost between July 1997 and June 1998. A majority of the losses were from bobcat predation, but collisions with powerlines, aspergillosis, and one shooting incident also contributed. An analysis of mortality was done and the only difference that was significant was exposure to water during the rearing of the chicks. A Patuxent "ponding" study also showed access to water during captivity to be critical to increase survival of released birds in Florida.
The two ultralight whooping cranes captured by Kent Clegg in the spring migration were released in Yellowstone National Park. The birds were very popular with tourists and became easy to approach. Kent captured one of the two. On July 21, it was transported by helicopter--funded by the WCCA--to Bechler Meadows, a large marsh in the southwest corner of the Park. The ultralight whooper that remained at Slough Creek became more wild, associated for the rest of the summer with a sandhill family, and stayed away from people.
The two remaining cross-fostered whoopers summered at Red Rocks NWR, and Bechler Meadows in Yellowstone NP. The adult cross-fostered whooper associated closely with the ultralight whooper following the release of the ultralight bird at Bechler Meadows. The sandhill crane-whooping crane hybrid was also located in Yellowstone this summer after Kent captured it last winter at Bosque and tagged it with a radio transmitter.
All three Yellowstone whooping cranes started the fall migration and staged in the Teton Basin west of Driggs, Idaho in late September. This movement occurred after the close of the special sandhill crane hunt in Idaho so no conflicts occurred.
Coordination activities in the summer included keeping the states updated on the whereabouts of the whoopers, getting permission to capture and relocate them in Yellowstone, notifying the states of WCRT decisions, and handling public inquiries.
An article was prepared by USFWS Public Affairs in Albuquerque for FWS newsletter about Kent Clegg's project. I provided editing and photographs for the article.
Dr. David Ellis received all permits for his stage-by-stage trucking and juvenile reintroduction experiments this summer in Utah and Arizona.. Sandhills raised at Patuxent were shipped out to Dr. Ellis in the spring.
As of September 22, eight of nine parent-reared juveniles had been released into subadults flocks that had migrated behind a truck in previous years.
A research proposal was circulated in May, comments received, and permits obtained. Sandhill chicks from Patuxent were shipped to Ontario in June and were trained successfully to follow an ultralight, but are being kept as wild as possible. The birds will be trucked south in the fall from Ontario to possibly the Tom Yawkey Center in South Carolina and soft-released into the wild. Behaviors will be assessed to see how wild the birds are, and to see if they will migrate north in the spring. Operation Migration does not expect them to migrate back north.
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
In 1998, Patuxent had 10 producing whooping crane pairs lay 55 eggs. Thirty chicks hatched, with 25 currently surviving.
Problems continued with metal ingestion. Nails and rings had popped off old metal roofs and were ingested by the whoopers. New roofs are in the works. A 7-year-old male died of capture myopathy on July 8. This bird had never produced and had been a single after unsuccessful pairing attempts. The bird was injured when inexperienced mowing crews worked in the crane area without notifying any of the staff to watch the birds. The bird was found injured and hospitalized, but died the next day. This bird had always been characterized as nervous and flighty, and the mowing was apparently too much for the bird to handle.
Patuxent continued full speed ahead on various whooping crane research projects too numerous to mention here. One experiment important to work conducted in Wood Buffalo NP was gluing radio transmitters on first-week sandhill chicks at Patuxent and observing how long the transmitters would stay on the chicks. After many instances of parents pulling the new transmitter off the chicks, a smaller transmitter mostly kept hidden next to the skin seemed to work.
International Crane Foundation (ICF)
In 1998, six pairs produced 22 eggs, with 7 chicks currently surviving. These will form a cohort and be released in Florida. The highest priority at ICF continued to be promoting egg laying by new females.
Ken Jones recently completed an extensive analysis of the genetics of the whooping crane population. A meeting was held at ICF in April to assemble data on the captive flocks. The Captive Management Team will make recommendations this fall on re-pairing needs and relocations of some of the captive whoopers.
Calgary whooping cranes produced two viable eggs and two additional eggs were brought from WBNP. The one WBNP chick that survived injured a wing and is not suitable for reintroduction. The other two chicks will be shipped to Patuxent in mid-November for probable release in Florida.
San Antonio Zoo
No eggs were fertile of the 10 eggs produced from the two whooping crane pairs at the San Antonio Zoo despite the use of AI on one of the pairs, with semen flown in from Patuxent. The zoo has received a donation of $200,000 to completely redo the whooping crane exhibit. They hope to start the work this fall and complete it in 1999.
WHOOPING CRANE NUMBERS/October 1, 1998
Location Adult Young Total
Aransas/Wood Buffalo 181 24 205
(205 is the maximum # possible. Winter count of
about 190 is expected due to oversummer mortality.)
Rocky Mountains 4 0 4
Florida 56 0 56
Subtotal in the Wild 241 24 265
Location Adult Young Pairs Total
Patuxent WRC, Maryland 40 25 10 65
International Crane Foundation, WI 30 7 6 37
Calgary Zoo 20 3 2 23
San Antonio Zoological Gardens 4 0 2 4
White Oak Conservation Center, FL 2 0 0 2
Lowery Park Zoo, Tampa, FL 1 0 0 1
Subtotal in Captivity 97 35 20 132
TOTAL (Wild + Captive) = 397