The Crane Man

Jul 18, 2012 | Texas Monthly by Michael Berryhill | Related Press

No one knows more about whooping cranes than Tom Stehn, who studied and cared for them for three decades. Then he retired—only to discover that the magnificent and endangered birds needed him more than ever.

Early last December, Tom Stehn was enjoying his retirement in Aransas Pass, soaking in his hot tub after a morning of windsurfing, when the phone rang. He grimaced for a moment but hopped out of the water naked to see who was bothering him. A U.S. marshal was calling from his car, which was parked in Stehn’s driveway. A federal judge in Corpus Christi wanted him to testify about the deaths of 23 whooping cranes he’d reported during the winter of 2008 to 2009, two years before he had retired. The marshal asked if Stehn could come to court immediately. “All right,” he said, “but give me a minute to put on my clothes.”

Stehn knew what the case was about. A longtime biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he had served as its whooping crane coordinator for over a decade. No one had more hands-on experience with the birds, which are among the most endangered in North America. He had flown on countless aerial surveys to identify the whooping cranes’ winter territories in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, studied their habitat, measured the salinity of their marshes, celebrated their return each year, nurtured their sick, and, when he could, recovered their dead. In the winter of 2008 an emaciated juvenile had died in his arms.

Over the years, Stehn had watched the flock grow from 71 to nearly 300 birds. But he determined that during the drought of 2008 and 2009, 8.5 percent of the wintering flock and nearly 45 percent of the first-year juveniles had died. The following year, coastal tourism businesses, environmentalists, and the O’Connor family of Victoria, who owns tens of thousands of acres near the Guadalupe River, formed a nonprofit group called the Aransas Project and sued the state. The organization claimed that, under the Endangered Species Act, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was responsible for the deaths of the cranes because it had failed to allow enough freshwater to flow from the Guadalupe River into San Antonio Bay, which adjoins the wildlife refuge.

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