CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES

Conservation group files a federal lawsuit urging river usage restrictions

Mar 11, 2010 | Corpus Christi Caller-Times by Jaime Powell | TAP In The News

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ARANSAS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — Record deaths of Aransas County’s prized whooping cranes last year led to a conservation group’s federal lawsuit Thursday alleging that heavy Guadalupe River usage is killing the endangered birds.

The Aransas Project, an alliance of citizens, organizations, businesses and governmental entities, filed suit in Corpus Christi against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality alleging that the state agency allowed too much water to be drained from the river, reducing freshwater inflows that some biologists contend are critical to the birds’ survival.

“The harm that the whooping cranes have experienced is a direct result of TCEQ’s failed oversight of its water rights permit programs in the Guadalupe River Basin, where too much water is being taken out of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, especially during low flow conditions,” said Aransas Project attorney Jim Blackburn.

Causing harm, harassment or death of the protected whooping cranes is illegal under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cannot comment on specifics of the lawsuit. But the agency contends that the effect of low freshwater inflows on the whooping crane population is far from certain, according to a statement from spokeswoman Andrea Morrow.

The flock of whooping cranes that winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is the only naturally occurring group of the 5-foot-tall, white-plumed tourist attractions. Their population has increased from 16 birds in the early 1940s to a high of 270 in spring 2008.

From April 2008 to April 2009, steady population gains were crippled when 57 whooping cranes died, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane coordinator Tom Stehn.

Of those, 34 cranes died at either their nesting grounds in Canada or en route to South Texas for the winter. The rest, 23, died in South Texas, following a record drought that stifled Guadalupe River flow into area bays and estuaries where the birds live, Stehn said.

Low river flow resulted in very high salinity levels that depleted blue crabs, a whooping crane dietary staple, and forced hungry cranes, already depleted of energy, to fly in search of freshwater, Stehn said.

By comparison, six of the birds have died from May 2009 through mid-March.

“You can see the difference between a bad year and a good one,” Stehn said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won’t take an official position on the lawsuit, Stehn said. “I can say that I am very concerned about the entire issue,” he said. “Inflows are extremely important for whooping cranes. Inflows are lacking, which hurts the cranes. It has killed them.”

The current whooping crane flock is estimated at 263, Stehn said. Though late afternoon fog prevented a complete count, a March 9 aerial census found 193 adult whooping cranes and 18 juveniles. Biologists found no new evidence of dead cranes, following the death of one young crane this winter.

There are about 400 remaining whooping cranes in the wild. The local flock is the only one that migrates without human help, flying 2,500 miles between Canada and the South Texas coast twice a year.

The whooping cranes at the wildlife refuge are preparing to leave for Canada and will be mostly gone by April, Stehn said. One has already left and was spotted in Nebraska, Stehn said.

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