Whooping cranes take another small step to recovery

Whooping cranes take another small step to recovery
Photo by Klaus Nigge.

Another year, another record number of whooping crane nests in Wood Buffalo National Park.

The endangered, last wild migrating flock of whooping cranes in the world took another small step towards recovery this year, growing to 279 birds with 76 adult pairs building nests in the wetlands of southern NWT.

The slight rise in the number of nests from last year continues the slow and steady increase in the flock that has grown from a low of 16 birds in the 1940s.

It is an encouraging sign, but as Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) species at risk biologist Mark Bidwell told The Journal, the whooping cranes are not out of the woods yet.

“Because cranes reproduce so slowly, they are very slow to expand into new territories,” Bidwell said. “And even when you have growth, if you have low population numbers it is going to take many years to get to the point where they are not considered endangered.”

There are small, non-migrating populations of whooping cranes living in Florida and Louisiana, and another migrating flock that summers in Wisconsin before heading to Florida for the winter, but so far none of those flocks have become self-sufficient.

With only one self-sufficient flock of whooping cranes left in the world, Bidwell said the state of the species remains a major concern.

Consider last spring’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which narrowly missed the winter range of the whooping cranes. If that oil had flooded Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, the entire flock may have been wiped out.

“When you see an event like that so close to the wintering grounds of an endangered species, it’s a pretty scary event,” Bidwell said. “If some major natural disaster happened we could lose the entire species.”

Bidwell, who was born and raised in Saskatoon and did his master’s degree on blue crane populations in South Africa, said he grew up tracking whooping cranes when they passed through Saskatchewan on their annual migration. His experience is similar to that of many people living along the migration route in both USA and Canada, who have come to wait for the whooping cranes each year. Much of the information scientists have gathered about whooping crane migrations has come from residents along the route.

Bidwell said the whooping cranes have a unique ability to get human assistance, which accounts for the species’ rebound from the brink of extinction.

“I think the cranes are remarkable in the way they can convince people to help them,” Bidwell said. “And people are remarkable for what they do for the cranes. People recognize that these are special birds, and they want to do what they can to preserve them.”

He noted the whooping cranes are long-lived, mate for life and protect their offspring ferociously. They also look majestic soaring through the air, which has helped them capture the imagination of humans.

“Biologists call them an umbrella species, which means that if you conserve the whooping cranes by default you conserve 1000s of other species that use the same habitat,” Bidwell said.

Last week was Bidwell’s first visit to Fort Smith in his new role as the whooping crane expert with CWS. He will return in August when scientists with Wood Buffalo National Park and the CWS collaborate to catch and put GPS bands on ten to 12 juvenile whooping cranes.

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