Environmentalists fight for whoopers’ water

Nov 15, 2012 | Victoria Advocate by Dianna Wray | TAP In The News

The whoopers are back, but even as the famed birds settle in at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for what promises to be a mild winter, the legal controversy surrounding them lingers.

The whooping cranes have been at the center of a trial over the state’s role in the death of 23 whooping cranes during the winters of 2008 and 2009.

The Aransas Project, an environmental coalition, contends that the state took too much water out of the Guadalupe River before it reached the feeding grounds of the refuge, hurting the blue crabs that whoopers feed on and causing the death of 23 birds.

The Aransas Project wants the state to put a water plan in place that will protect the natural habitat of the cranes.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, at the forefront for the state, maintains a binding plan will take water away from current users.

The trial was held before U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in January. Jack has not issued a ruling on the case and the parties were in settlement negotiations until a new report was issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The report found fault in how cranes have been counted by the agency and the assumption that birds missing from their territories had died.

Last month, the state asked Jack to re-open the case to admit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report as evidence.

“We think this is a show-stopper,” said Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe Blanco-River Authority.

The report calls into question the methodology used by Tom Stehn, the longtime whooping crane coordinator for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, who retired last year.

“The report basically undermines his whole testimony,” West said.

While both parties are still waiting on a decision from the judge, West said Jack may have a one-day trial to consider the new evidence if she allows the report to be included.

Settlement negotiations ended in the face of the state’s request and Jim Blackburn, the Houston-based environmental lawyer representing the Aransas Project, said that they are working to exclude the report from the case.

“There is certainly an interest on the part of the state in getting it in, but we don’t think it changes anything,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said that the cranes are important because unhealthy cranes means an unhealthy bay, which can impact the entire area.

“The cranes are dependent on the blue crabs and the blue crabs are dependent on a healthy and functioning estuary,” Blackburn said. “In many ways, the whooping cranes are the perfect species indicator for the health of the bay. If we keep the bays healthy, the whoopers will be fine.”


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