SAN MARCOS DAILY RECORD

Suit filed to protect rare birds gets local support

Dec 11, 2009 | San Marcos Daily Record by Anita Miller | TAP In The News
Whooping cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Earl Nottingham, Texas Parks & Wildlife

Whooping cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Earl Nottingham, Texas Parks & Wildlife

The death last winter of nearly a tenth of the only natural flock of whooping cranes has prompted a coastal group to sue some state officials in federal court for “illegal harm and harassment” of the federally-endangered birds.

The death last winter of nearly a tenth of the only natural flock of whooping cranes has prompted a coastal group to sue some state officials in federal court for “illegal harm and harassment” of the federally-endangered birds.

The Aransas Project (TAP), based in Rockport, filed notice of intent to sue this week, alleging that the three commissioners of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the agency’s executive director and its Guadalupe River watermaster violated Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act.

San Marcos River Foundation Executive Director Dianne Wassenich applauded the TAP’s effort.

“It appears that attention is finally focused on how much water should be flowing from the aquifer, and how much water should be making it to the bays,” she said.

“SMRF did its best over the past nine years to have this water allocation issue handled in a state agency and the state courts. SMRF’s long effort certainly made it clear to the state that the deaths of the cranes in droughts was a serious problem, and could be traced to the lack of fresh water making it to the coast because too many water rights were being granted.”

Jim Blackburn, TAP’s attorney, said in a press release that the winter of 2008/2009 was devastating for the birds at and near the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, with 23 individuals, or 8.5 percent of the flock, dying.

The group says that’s because not enough fresh water reached San Antonio Bay for the cranes main food supply — blue crabs — to thrive. And that, in turn, is because the TCEQ has allowed too much water to be taken from the San Marcos, Blanco and Guadalupe rivers, they say, meaning not enough fresh water reaches the bays and estuaries.

“The TCEQ needs to develop a habitat conservation plan if there is to be any long-term hope for the future of this species and its habitat,” Blackburn said. “TAP is seeking a water management plan for this basin that reallocates water usage priorities, sets environmental flow standards for the bays, and includes a full accounting of all water uses and needs throughout the basin — all the way to the bay.”

As of Tuesday, 208 whooping cranes at arrived at the Aransas refuge, said Tom Stehl of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with another 10 having been accounted for along their migration route from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. He expects perhaps 30 more individuals to still arrive, as the migration was more than a week late this year.

Though only two carcasses were recovered from last winter’s die-off, Stehl said, “it’s no secret in studying wildlife that when food supplies are short is when mortality occurs.”

During times of good supplies of blue crabs and wolfberries, Stehl said “we get an average of about one” die each winter. “So to have 23 is just an astronomical bad year.”

And he’s still worried about the winter ahead. “The wolfberry crop is better, not the disaster we had last year, but the blue crabs are just in short supply. When you start the fall with not many blue crabs, I don’t see how it can be a good winter (for the cranes).

Blackburn noted that the situation will likely get even worse. “These impacts will be worsened by use of existing water rights yet to be drawn from the Guadalupe like the reservation of 75,000 acre feet for the proposed Exelon Nuclear power plant, or the permits for additional future water rights that were recently filed by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority. In a region with recognized water shortages, permits for massive quantities of water for industrial and municipal uses continue to be requested and granted.”

TAP Regional Director Dr. Ron Outen noted that the ecosystems that support the cranes also draw tourists and support industries like fishing. “Ultimately, the argument to protect the whooping cranes goes beyond the desire to save an iconic endangered species — it is about saving a way of life. The cranes provide us with an early warning system of the overall health of these coastal ecosystems.”

He pointed out that the whooping crane, which nearly went extinct in the 1940s, remains the most recognizable endangered species in the world. “Mismanagement of water in the Guadalupe River Basin is destroying the winter habitat of these magnificent birds — and killing them.”

Under federal law, TAP must wait 60 days from filing an intent to sue before filing the actual lawsuit.

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