Endangered whooping crane recovery suffers major setback

Nov 28, 2011 | Postmedia News by Randy Boswell | Related Press

A major bi-national conservation effort linking the endangered whooping crane’s Canadian breeding grounds to a new experimental colony in Louisiana has suffered a “profound setback” after what officials are calling the “thoughtless” killing of two of the 10 reintroduced birds — allegedly by a pair of teenagers firing gunshots from their truck along a Gulf Coast backroad.

The earlier deaths of four other transplanted cranes over the past nine months have left just four survivors in the new colony at Louisiana’s White Lake wetlands, imperilling a wildlife recovery project that has involved dozens of Canadian and American experts and has attracted high-profile support from U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Fewer than 400 whooping cranes live in the wild, migrating annually between breeding grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park on the Alberta-Northwest Territories border and their wintering site at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

Another 200 or so whoopers live in managed flocks, and the 10 birds released to the Louisiana reserve in February — including four hatched from eggs raised at a Calgary Zoo breeding facility — represented a significant portion of the species’ entire population in a strategically important new habitat for one of the world’s most threatened animals.

“Losing two cranes, especially in such a thoughtless manner, is a huge setback in the department’s efforts to re-establish a whooping crane population in Louisiana,” Robert Barham, secretary of the state’s wildlife and fisheries department, said in a statement about last month’s crane deaths. “We take this careless crime very seriously.”

Cindy Dohner, a conservation officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, added: “This is a profound setback to the many people and organizations who have worked so hard to bring this magnificent bird back to Louisiana.”

Eyewitness reports led investigators to the suspected shooters, who are facing a variety of possible charges under U.S. federal and state laws.

News of the deaths has struck hard at the Calgary Zoo, where conservation research director Axel Moehrenschlager called the loss of the birds “very, very sad.

“It is disappointing when an endangered species is directly killed by people,” he added. “It could be a one-case occurrence or it could be a symptom of things that could continue in the future and I think investigations need to look at it very seriously in that light.”

But Moehrenschlager noted that bringing a vulnerable species back to a former habitat is, by definition, an enormous conservation challenge.

“Reintroduction programs are difficult because a species has disappeared from an area for good reasons — oftentimes very overarching and powerful reasons that have driven the species to extinction in that site,” he said. “Most reintroduction programs, because of these challenges, in fact, fail, (so) it’s really crucial not to be deterred by something like this in the first year. People need to have the courage to carry on and stay with the original plan.”

Prior to February’s reintroduction, the last time a wild whooping crane was seen in Louisiana was in 1950. The conversion of marsh habitat to farmland, destructive hunting practices and other factors led to the bird’s disappearance from the region.

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