Whooping cranes spread outside park

May 12, 2011 | CBC News | Related Press

Endangered whooping cranes are expanding outside Wood Buffalo National Park, another sign that their population is recovering.

The cranes have begun spreading onto the lands of the Salt River First Nation, N.W.T., near the northeast corner of the park, which straddles the N.W.T.-Alberta boundary. The band has created guidelines to make sure the birds are not disturbed.

Wildlife biologist Rhonda Kindopp said the expansion of the cranes’ breeding territory is a sign that efforts to help the crane population recover are working.

“I’m absolutely excited and there’s people excited all throughout the migratory corridor and down into Texas about the growth of this population,” said Kindopp.

Biologists in Canada’s north will be counting the whooping cranes and their nests this coming weekend to find out how many returned from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in southern Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, where the Canadian cranes spend their winters.

Ronnie Schaefer, a member of the Salt River First Nation, said he had been quite worried about the birds because of the 800-million-litre spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, which is still being cleaned up.

“It made me feel happy they made it through the winter and migration down to where they had that massive oil spill,” he said.

First Nation volunteer

Schaefer, the local town bylaw officer, devotes 40 hours a week of his own time to monitoring the cranes and making sure people follow the guidelines created by his band so that the birds aren’t disturbed.

He rides his ATV through the deep mud left behind by the snowmelt, searching in the marsh with his binoculars.

Schaefer described how each bird stakes out its own patch of marshland and confronts other birds, dancing and calling, to defend it.

“They know, ‘This is our territory, don’t [over]step this boundary,'” he said. “It’s fun to watch.”

The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing 1.5 metres or nearly five feet tall.

In the 1940s, just 21 of the birds were left in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which says habitat loss and hunting were to blame.

Thanks to efforts to protect the birds’ breeding and wintering grounds, the population of wild and captive birds had grown to 500 by 2007.

Last summer, 74 nesting pairs of the endangered birds were counted at Wood Buffalo National Park, up from 33 pairs in 1991.

Other populations live in Florida and Wisconsin.

The population is expected to reach 5,000 in about 30 years, at which point it will be considered fully recovered.

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