Whooping crane flight tours cancelled for May-June

Whooping crane flight tours cancelled for May-June
Tourists hoping to catch this kind of aerial view of whooping cranes will have to wait until at least August following the cancellation of the new program’s earliest excursions. That is, unless the program is quashed by a legal injunction, to be filed by Salt River First Nation.Photo courtesy of Parks Canada.

Just over a week after the Salt River First Nation (SRFN) announced it would be filing a court injunction over Wood Buffalo National Park’s (WBNP) new whooping crane tours, Parks Canada has cancelled the program’s earliest tour dates.

The Whooping Crane Iconic Experience, set to begin last week, has been suspended for now, though not because of the injunction, according to a release sent out by Parks.

“Parks Canada is committed to offering visitor experiences that connect Canadians to their treasured places in ways that leave our natural heritage unimpaired for future generations,” reads a statement from WBNP. “We are not doing our May-June delivery as no cranes have nested in the areas near our blinds.”

SRFN announced it would be filing the injunction two weeks ago, stating that Parks had not fulfilled its legally-required duty to consult with Aboriginal rights holders in the park.

But officials from WBNP say those rights would not be infringed upon by the planned whooping crane tours.

“We value our relationship with local Aboriginal groups and are committed to working with them, but a legal duty to consult is only triggered when an activity might impact an established Aboriginal or treaty right such as hunting, trapping or fishing, none of which are impacted by this visitor experience,” Parks Canada said. “However, we recognize a desire for more information on the whooping crane experience and are committed to engaging them in discussions.”

Fort Smith Métis Council president Ken Hudson said he’s unsatisfied with this response.

“The fact that the park is engaging with us for co-management tells me that they should be consulting on any issue that has to do with the park. They not only have to consult with the local people, but they should be consulting with the 11 groups around the park,” Hudson said, referring to the various First Nations that hold treaty rights within WBNP.

Concern for the birds

Since SRFN announced it would be filing the injunction, some – including Hudson – have expressed concern over the possible impacts of the tours on the well-being of the birds. The proposed program includes several options to view the natural nesting area of the whooping cranes, including fixed-wing flights at 1,000 ft, helicopter flights at 1,200 ft and hikes into a blind several hundred metres away.

Some worry the flights could scare the birds away, causing them to abandon their nests and endangering the hatchlings.

In its release, Parks defended the tours, stating research shows the birds are not troubled by such human activity.

“As a world leader in conservation, Parks Canada conducted considerable scientific research and collected extensive data on the whooping cranes before making a determination that the proposed tours would have no adverse impacts on the birds or the eggs,” Parks said.

A view from the south

During the colder months, the whooping cranes of WBNP head south to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge, located on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It’s there that retired biologist Chester McConnell follows their every move as the president of conservation group Friends of the Wild Whoopers.

McConnell said he became aware of the WBNP whooping crane tour experience as early as a year ago, when it was mentioned to him casually by a Parks employee.

“It was just nonchalant; it wasn’t a confirmed proposal or anything,” he said. “I said, well, if it’s done right, anything to get people interested in whooping cranes so long as it doesn’t have any adverse effects on them, we support it.”

McConnell was told the program was officially a go after Parks Canada sent out a press release on the program on Jan. 29 of this year.

“When the Salt River First Nation came out with their opposition, I could see their point of view,” McConnell said. “They got a right to the land and they should be contacted on anything they have a right to be contacted about.”

While he understands the concerns about the touring program, he noted that previous scientific studies have not had lasting impacts on the cranes.

“They’ve flown out there and gotten eggs before and used them in research projects,” he said. “They’ve banded the whooping cranes by landing out there and just walking in. So far as I know, none of that has ever had any long-lasting effect.”

He also noted that fixed-wing aircraft flying at an altitude of about 200 ft are regularly used to do aerial counts of the birds in Aransas.

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