Whooper die-off prediction prompts petition

Feb 4, 2010 | Victoria Advocate by J.J. Velasquez | Related Press

A whooping crane die-off prediction prompted action from a Texas environment advocacy group Monday.

Environment Texas is petitioning Gov. Rick Perry to re-examine the way the state issues water permits, the group’s director Luke Metzger said.

As of Tuesday morning, 760 people had signed the petition that began circulating Monday, he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials predicted last week that the whooping crane flock would dwindle because of a dearth of food in the coastal marshes they inhabit.

“We’ve been very alarmed that over the last few years we’ve seen a decline in their population,” said Metzger, who called the species a bellwether for the health of the ecosystem. “We think matters have gotten very severe, and it’s really critical that Governor Perry act and use his power to make sure the birds are protected.”

The petition is the latest in a public rallying cry to protect the cranes through heightened regulation of water removal from the Guadalupe River.

The environmental group is accusing industrial and agricultural permit holders of irresponsibly withdrawing water from the marshes, causing the number of blue crabs, among other food sources for the birds, to decrease.

The Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, a state agency, regulates such withdrawals.

In December, the Aransas Project, a group concerned with freshwater flows in the Guadalupe River Basin, filed notice to sue the agency. The group claimed the Texas environmental commission mismanaged the Guadalupe River Basin and illegally harmed the endangered birds.

Metzger said Environment Texas acknowledges that last year’s drought played a major role in the die-offs. Because of the drought, however, water withdrawal must be monitored more closely, he said.

“Drought is increasingly becoming a way of life here in Texas,” he said. “We need to make sure that the water we do have is used responsibly. We don’t believe that has happened.”

Bill West, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority general manager, said the river authority has been actively trying to protect the birds. The organization funded a seven-year study of freshwater inflows to the San Antonio Bay and how it affects the whooping cranes.

West said Environment Texas, though, does not make a strong case in its assertions.

“Certainly, groups like Environment Texas have good intentions, but this is just one of those cases where its thesis … is not fully supported by the facts,” he said.

He said 2009’s drought was most detrimental to the cranes’ health.

Last year, with South Texas drought-stricken, 23 cranes died. It was the deadliest winter on record for the birds.

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