Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Photograph by Joel Sartore/joelsartore.com
Photograph by Joel Sartore/joelsartore.com
Photograph by Joel Sartore/joelsartore.com
Photograph by the International Crane Foundation

Saving North America’s Tallest Bird

Whooping crane recovery is one of conservation's great successes, but suddenly there are new and frightening threats.

By Ted Williams
Published: July-August 2013

On the cold, misty morning of February 12, 2013, Iliana Pena, conservation director for Audubon Texas, and I are trying to feel good about the future of whooping cranes. In Captain Tommy Moore's metal birding boat, Skimmer, we are cruising the Intracoastal Waterway inches from the western shore of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast. With us is Wade Harrell, whooping crane recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the refuge, thereby protecting the 47,200-acre Blackjack Peninsula between Aransas and San Antonio bays. Since then it's grown to 115,000 acres and been named a Globally Important Bird Area. Today the refuge helps sustain somewhere between 178 and 362 whooping cranes, up from 15 in 1941. The Fish and Wildlife Service thinks the number is probably around 257 but can't say for sure because it has come up with a controversial new system of estimating rather than counting. These birds migrate from breeding grounds in northern Canada to wintering habitat here in south Texas.

George Archibald & Gee Whiz. W2
Photograph by the International Crane Foundation
Following this piece on whooping cranes in the May-June issue, a loyal reader registered disappointment that I hadn't mentioned the tremendous contributions of George Archibald and the International Crane Foundation in establishing the captive-reared flock that now migrates between Wisconsin and Florida (see "The Man Who Saves Cranes,"). So I'll take this opportunity to credit Archibald and the foundation for their heroic work. And special thanks to the foundation for being part of the successful lawsuit that has given the wild population a fighting chance by protecting the vital freshwater inflow to their winter habitat. T.W.
A second population of about 100 whoopers, started with captive-reared birds fed by volunteers and aviculturists in crane costumes and imprinted to follow ultralight aircraft, migrates between Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin and Chassahowitzha and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges on Florida's west coast. They're doing well in the wild but reproduction is low. A non-migratory flock established at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park in south-central Florida seems to have failed, but another of about two dozen in southwest Louisiana shows great promise.

During the past 70 or so years the naturally migrating population has increased at an average of 4.5 percent annually. Still, Pena and I have a bad feeling about the onslaught of new threats in Texas--climate change that is flooding salt marshes and bringing habitat-wrecking black mangroves up from the south, and coastal development, drought, and water withdrawals from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers that have raised salinity in bays and estuaries, thereby killing the blue crabs and other invertebrates that sustain the cranes. A recent federal court decision may have resolved the water-withdrawal issue, but persistent drought, possibly related to climate change, remains a concern.

 

Even on dark days, birders have to work to sustain dark moods in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Opening the show for us and eliciting smiles from all hands are reddish egrets dashing around the marsh, hopping and changing direction like Keystone Kops. A seaside sparrow carols from his spartina perch. Great blue herons in astonishing profusion hunch, puff, and preen. Ospreys hover and perch on buoys. Great and snowy egrets stalk salt ponds and scull overhead. White pelicans in tight clusters roost on sandbars. Brown pelicans fold their wings and dive. A northern harrier wobbles low over the marsh. Patrolling the wet flats are dunlins, marbled godwits, willets, long-billed curlews, dowitchers, oystercatchers, avocets, greater yellowlegs. A white-tailed hawk amiably shares a roost with seven great blue herons. Bottlenosed dolphins roll in our wake and bow wave. Are we really getting paid for this? Pena and I ask ourselves.

Although whoopers are the tallest birds on the continent (five feet high when they stand erect), they dwell in low vegetation, better to spot predators. So the refuge's high, brushy western shore, rife with bobcats, coyotes, and feral hogs, is a write-off. But the vast eastern marsh is whooper heaven. Dominant plants include pickleweed, spartina, and inland salt grass. Early in the season cranes feast on wolfberries--fleshy red fruits clustered on water-tolerant shrubs.

"Whoopers," announces Captain Moore over the loudspeaker. There are two adults 100 yards out. They are nearly a third bigger than the nearby great egrets and great blue herons, bigger even than sandhill cranes. Through our binoculars we can see their yellow eyes, red-black cheeks, and bald, scarlet crowns. It seems impossible that feathers can be this white. Their tail plumage is short but luxuriant, pointing down unlike those of so many other species. They strut and probe, lifting their black legs like dressage horses. It's easy to see why these birds have become North America's inspirational symbols of conservation, capturing our hearts and minds.

Another pair forages on either side of a rust-colored chick. Over the next hour we encounter eight more adults, including a pair no more than 90 feet off our port bow. One has a blue band on its right leg and a radio transmitter with a downward-pointing antenna on its left leg. Harrell explains that the silver square is a solar collector that recharges the battery. A few more dark days like this and radio signals will cease. Then, with the first sun, Harrell and his team will get a big data dump.

During last year's severe drought that data showed that many birds had left the refuge in search of food, freshwater to drink, or both. "We've had some rain this year," Harrell says, "but freshwater is still limited. A lot of the ponds they use are dry. We're trying to rework some old wells." Today these cranes will have to fly only about a mile for freshwater. When they're forced to fly 10 or 15 miles they burn calories they need for spring migration.

Whoopers flourished through much of the Pleistocene, when shallow seas and adjacent marshes covered large areas of North America. But when this wealth of habitat shrank, so did the population. Unlike their close relatives, the ubiquitous sandhill cranes, whose current population totals more than half a million, whoopers didn't adapt well. By the year 1500 there were probably no more than 10,000. In 1922, after massive wetland drainage and wanton shooting, whoopers abandoned their only known nesting site in Saskatchewan.

But migrating chicks continued to be seen, so there had to be another nesting site. Unless it was found and protected, the species was doomed. After years of grueling, life-threatening exploration by foot, canoe, and floatplane, Audubon ornithologist Robert Allen found the site at Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories. His remarkable feat is documented in Kathleen Kaska's book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane (University Press of Florida, 2012).

When the observations of migrating birds slipped to eight between 1941 and 1943, Allen described the situation as "a four-alarm fire." So Audubon initiated public education, getting coverage in TV news segments, newspapers, game commission magazines, and farm journals. The exposure ignited a national fascination with whoopers, but with it came a feeding frenzy by the press resulting in a torrent of misinformation that Audubon had to correct. Among the examples Kaska cites: Time reported that hunting and harassment had forced the birds north, where they were ill-adapted to cope with Canadian weather. And Maclean's, Canada's weekly news magazine, outraged tax reformers by wrongly reporting that the failed searches had cost $75,000. "The total amount of each taxpayer's direct contribution to our search . . . wouldn't cover the cost of a penny postcard to their congressmen," wrote Allen in an Audubon report.

From the beginning, Wood Buffalo National Park had been high on Allen's list of suspects. He'd flown the general area of the nesting site for three weeks and over it on June 25, 1947, but a blinding storm had forced him back. Finally, on May 22, 1955, following a reliable tip from a pilot on forest-fi re patrol, Allen looked down from a helicopter on the sight he'd been searching for and dreaming about--a whooper on her nest. Thanks largely to Allen, air, water, and land access to breeding habitat is now restricted. And a team made up of U.S. and Canadian scientists oversees recovery and recommends policies to the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

While whoopers didn't adapt well to the demise of North America's shallow seas, they are showing some adaptability to current changing habitat. Some birds now winter as far away from the refuge as Granger Lake, 200 miles to the north. Inland, they subsist on frogs, snakes, crawfish, insects, and even corn. The Fish and Wildlife Service is upbeat about the bird's chances, calling the increased use of nontraditional wintering areas "great news." Pena is less sanguine. "I'm glad they're adaptable," she says. "But are they doing well off the refuge or just leaving a stressful situation? And the public's unfamiliarity with the birds far inland worries me. Sandhill cranes can be legally hunted, and whoopers sometimes mix with them."

On both counts Pena has reason for concern. Deaths by gunshot just since 2009 include what had been the introduced flock's first successful breeding female (killed in Indiana), three juveniles killed in Georgia, two birds in Alabama, an adult in South Dakota, an adult in Louisiana, and a juvenile in Texas. And in the winter of 2008 2009 at least 23 cranes, including 16 juveniles, perished when excessive freshwater withdrawals by the state's Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority spiked salinity in bays and marshes, wiping out invertebrate prey. Recovered carcasses were emaciated.

That winter Felipe Chavez-Ramirez of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, who completed his doctoral dissertation on whoopers in 1996 and has been working on them ever since, could see that something was dreadfully wrong. "The birds were off their territories and looking for alternative food sources or freshwater," he says. "That's highly unusual. We saw very few captures of blue crabs, which was troubling. And Tom Stehn [the whooping crane coordinator who retired in 2011] documented heavy mortality; that was significant because in many winters there's no mortality. We also saw chicks by themselves--very odd. On normal years parents feed their young, but we saw cranes aggressively keeping food from their chicks."

So in March 2010 the Aransas Project--an eclectic alliance of citizens, businesses, and organizations, including Audubon Texas and the International Crane Foundation, alarmed at the destruction of habitat that sustains whoopers and humans--sued the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the entity that authorizes water diversions. Intervening for the state were the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and the Texas Chemical Council. The Texas Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau, both of which can be counted on to be on the wrong side of every environmental issue, attempted to intervene but were denied.

The behavior of the defendants appalled those who witnessed it, including the presiding U.S. District Court judge, Janis Graham Jack. For example, just as she was about to write her decision, a defense attorney (now banned from practicing in her courtroom) untruthfully informed her that the case had been settled. She therefore stopped working on it. "I don't like to be snookered," she declared when proceedings resumed. "I was told emphatically that the case had settled. . . . I am not happy with the behavior of anybody [with the defense]." That bogus report delayed a decision for about eight months.

Tom Stehn, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who managed the cranes for 29 years, knows far more about them than anyone else, but his superiors wouldn't permit him to testify. Although this left the birds without their most knowledgeable defender, the decision was understandable because of the litigious blitzkrieg from groups seeking Endangered Species Act status for every species, studied or unstudied, from northern steptoe pyrg snails to Cooper's cave amphipods (and, of course, collecting attorney fees from U.S. taxpayers along the way). If the service allowed its biologists to be used by every plaintiff, they'd spend their careers testifying in court.

But after Tom Stehn retired, Judge Jack subpoenaed him. Jim Blackburn, lead attorney for the Aransas Project, hadn't had a chance to work with the witness and had no idea what he might say. When Stehn took the stand Blackburn had to ask him whether 23 cranes had died that year. The ensuing 40 seconds were both the most frightening and elating Blackburn has experienced in a courtroom. "Tom hesitated," he recalls, "and my heart fell to the floor. And then he said, 'I actually think more birds than that died, but 23 were all I could verify.' " Later Judge Jack allowed that she'd been impressed by the plaintiffs' experts.

"The defense hammered me for hours," says Stehn. "How could I possibly know that 23 whooping cranes had died when I didn't find all the carcasses? It's very simple. Ninety-nine percent of the time chicks stay with their parents the entire winter. Day after day you've got two adults on their territory with their chick. Then there are only two adults. There's no other explanation-- the chick is dead. Finally, the judge said, 'Mr. Stehn's the expert. He's been doing this for 29 years, and we have to believe him.' "

During the delay caused by the defendants' false tale of settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report touting a crane-survey protocol it had devised to replace Stehn's census. In their eagerness to promote the new protocol, the authors made the tactical blunder of at least appearing to denigrate Stehn's method. They reported that they'd reviewed his techniques and "identified multiple modifications that would improve the survey's scientific rigor and value."

The defendants pounced on the report like a fox on a vole. "This is a real game-changer," effused Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, to the Houston Chronicle. "The report points out the shortcomings in the methodology, and that was the basis of their case."

Blackburn called the report "bad science," and Judge Jack wouldn't allow it as evidence because she didn't  consider it "reliable." At this point, it wasn't difficult to predict the final outcome. On March 10, 2013, three years to the day after the initial fi ling, Judge Jack found that the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to provide adequate freshwater inflow to whooping crane habitat. And she enjoined the commission from granting new water permits affecting the Guadalupe or San Antonio rivers "until the state of Texas provides reasonable assurances to the Court" that new permits would not result in harm to the cranes.

It wasn't as if the plaintiffs had asked for much--just decent freshwater inflows from the Hill Country to San Antonio and Aransas bays in times of drought, as mandated by the Endangered Species Act. That's something the Fish and Wildlife Service, not private citizens, should have demanded and required.

The ruling, says Blackburn, is "vindication of the sound science and the dedicated efforts of Tom Stehn."

"Together with colleagues far and wide, we were thrilled by the depth of the Judge's report and her decision," says George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation who flew from China to Corpus Christie to be the first witness in the trial where he spent three hours talking about the importance of fresh water inflows to coastal wetlands and how it relates to the survival of whopping cranes. "It was a most comprehensive and, I believe, balanced report. We expected a win for the cranes would result in an appeal. It would not be surprising if this case goes to the Supreme Court to test the ESA against state rights over water."

 

That's not to say that the new survey protocol is unsound science. It's "new" only for whoopers, having been used successfully for other species. Whether or not it is good whooper management remains to be seen. Stehn is not enamored of it. "Whenever a population is small enough and not moving around much, you can find all the individuals if the cover is right," he says. "On a sunny day you can see a whooping crane two miles away; there's nothing for them to hide behind. A complete, intensive census where you try to count all the birds is better than spending half the time and estimating. It's just common sense. They claim they have to do it this way [partly] because the birds are moving around so much now. I don't buy that. The'08-'09 birds were moving around a lot because of food shortages, but if I flew enough, I could count them all."

Pena has problems with the new protocol as well. "It's very difficult to draw comparisons when you make a change like this," she says. "And it was bad timing. I think it's worth the effort to do it Tom's way. I don't see why you'd want to change at a time when everything is under contention."

Blackburn offers this: "The size of the [2011-2012] flock, even by the service's own estimation, [was] lower than during the prior year, and the scientific record from electronically monitored cranes in the flock suggests more cranes may have died than in the drought of 2008-2009, which was the highest mortality ever recorded. But we'll never know what really happened, because the service has abandoned the methodology of counting individual cranes each month, as was done for 29 years, and instead has resorted to distance sampling. . . . We don't really understand [sampling instead of counting] because Tom Stehn seemed to manage just fi ne with more cranes. Recent statements by the service would make you think that they were covered up in cranes down there, which even their estimates don't support."

The new survey protocol was first used on cranes in the winter of 2011-2012, yielding an estimate of 254 on and close to the refuge plus or minus 62. So maybe there were 192 birds or maybe 316. Was the population plummeting, soaring, or stable? The service couldn't say.

Wade Harrell, Stehn's replacement and a seasoned and highly respected scientist in his own right, is painfully aware of these deficiencies. "The variance [between high and low estimates] is more than we would have liked," he told Pena and me. "We're trying to work on ways to narrow it. I think the new method is moving us in a direction where we can get a more precise estimate of birds."

The 2012-2013 estimate, released five days after Pena and I left south Texas, doesn't inspire confidence. It's somewhere between 178 and 362 birds--probably around 257, says the service. But Harrell had told us something that goes a long way toward justifying his agency's position: "When you have new staff come on board, you need a way to be consistent so there's data you can compare from one year to the next. For the first time ever we have a written protocol I can hand other biologists so they can understand exactly how we fly surveys." That's an essential element. There are, alas, no more Tom Stehns.

"Tom did a complete census; he knew the birds for decades, had an incredible knowledge of what to expect," says the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory's Chavez-Ramirez. "New people can't do that. On the one hand, we need a standard technique, but the new protocol doesn't collect the additional information that Tom's census did--like potential mortalities. We need to find other ways to gather that information."

 

The growing human population of south Texas requires freshwater. But it requires other resources, too, and if you salt up bays and marshes, you lose these resources. Without natural freshwater inflow the crab industry crashes, the oyster industry crashes, the shrimp industry crashes, the recreational fishing industry crashes, and the birding-tourism industry crashes. Then the real estate industry crashes, because all these resources bring people to south Texas. There are ways of conserving freshwater and even rendering it from seawater. But there is no way of maintaining native estuarine and saltmarsh ecosystems in high-saline conditions over the long term.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the same outfit that had been degrading the native ecosystem that supports humans and whooping cranes in Aransas and San Antonio bays, reports that similar water withdrawals have destroyed the economic and ecological viability of Nueces Bay, near Corpus Christi. This once-rich estuary now produces far fewer oysters, crabs, and shrimp.

When it hasn't been corrupted by gross freshwater diversions, San Antonio Bay, which contains the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, annually has fed the local economy with $1 million from crabbing, $6 million from recreational fishing, $17 million from oystering, and $30 million from shrimping. And that doesn't take into account the living resources in Aransas Bay or trade in fuel, food, and equipment.

"Texas has a water system based in the 1900s," declares Blackburn. "And we're dealing with 21st-century problems." That system has been killing cranes. But if the recent court victory by the Aransas Project and its allies survives appeal, at least the Guadalupe- San Antonio River system will be dragged into the 21st century. So the whooping crane's future is suddenly brighter.

Unfortunately, however, the 21st-century problems aren't confined to the wintering grounds. Migrating whoopers stop near or in tar sands strip mines and tailing ponds, and lately they've been showing up with feathers fouled by black material. While the contaminant has yet to be positively identified, tar sands waste is the prime suspect. And rapidly proliferating wind-turbine projects along the cranes' migration route threaten flying birds and, worse, destroy stopover habitat.

So the message for the nation's bird lovers, local shrimpers, fishermen, and coastal residents is this: Rejoice briefly at a major win, then focus on the future. Start advocating everywhere for intelligent water management and whooping cranes, and start planning a winter trip to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

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SPEAK UP!
Learn more: Google "Texas Whooper Watch" and learn how you can help managers increase their knowledge of crane behavior and identify migration stopover sites, nontraditional wintering areas, and new threats. For the latest information, go to tx.audubon.org and fws.gov/refuge/Aransas.
Take action: Learn more about the Aransas Project and how you can get involved on behalf of whoopers at thearansasproject.org.
Get inspired: The best way to save whoopers is to go see them in the wild. To observe them in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, contact Captain Tommy Moore's Birding and Kayak Adventures in Rockport, Texas, at 361-727-0643.

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Ted Williams

Ted Williams is freelance writer.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine