Gulf oil spill crisis may take toll on endangered whooping cranes

Jun 24, 2010 | Calgary Herald by Gwendolyn Richards | Related Press

CALGARY – The already endangered population of whooping cranes may be in further jeopardy if the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affects the birds’ winter habitat and food systems, says an expert with the Calgary Zoo.

As BP works to stem the oil leaking from the ruptured well, the flock manager for the zoo’s whooping crane breeding program says there is growing concern that what has already been spilled will wash up on crane habitat. It’s also possible the oil will contaminate the shellfish, frogs and fish the birds feast on after migrating south for the winter.

“Right now, we can only wait and see how much longer this is going to be flowing and leaking and how far it goes,” said Dwight Knapik, zookeeper at the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre. “Everything like this is a concern.”

Experts have spent 65 years trying to rebuild the whooping crane population from the 21 birds left at the end of the Second World War to the 550 wild and captive birds alive today.

The cranes, which lay only two eggs per year and typically raise one chick, can’t recover quickly from a dip in the population.

“It takes a long time for them to come back,” Knapik said.

The only wild flock left in the world spends its summers in Wood Buffalo National Park and migrates south to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Birds raised through breeding programs — including those through the Calgary Zoo program — migrate between central Wisconsin and the northwest coast of Florida.

Aransas in Texas is at less risk for contamination because the prevailing water currents appear to be pushing the water east to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, which will take the brunt of it, Knapik said.

But that could have an effect on the wintering grounds of the flock that has been trained to follow ultralight aircraft from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to the northwest coast of Florida.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen has said it will take years to restore environments and habitats affected by the spill. Hundreds of oiled birds have been picked up by wildlife rescue workers in five states, including Texas.

Nearly 700 endangered brown pelicans have died.

Knapik said one of the reasons experts are trying to establish more than one population of cranes by spreading out their summer and winter habitats is so one catastrophic event, such as a hurricane or an oil leak, won’t devastate the entire population.

“You can’t have all your cranes in one basket,” he said.

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