Reintroduction of Whooping Cranes to Louisiana
December 2010 - December 2016
- Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
- Coypu Foundation
The Whooping Crane is North America’s largest bird and is arguably one of its most charismatic species. The Whooping Crane is also one of the great conservation success stories. At one time, resident and/or migrant populations of the Whooping Crane occupied much of the southern United States. Due to overhunting and agricultural development, however, Whooping Crane numbers declined dramatically to only 21 birds in 1954. The last remaining flock of Whooping Cranes wintered on what is now the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The breeding grounds for this species were unknown until its discovery in Woods Buffalo National Park in 1954 (Allen 1956). The Whooping Crane was placed on the endangered species list in 1970 and was grandfathered into the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Since that time, the wild population has increased to about 235 birds (Tom Stehn, USFWS, personal communication). The Whooping Crane Recovery Plan, however, calls for the successful establishment of at least 3 breeding populations (including the wild flock) of at least 25 breeding pairs. Currently, efforts are underway to establish a migratory population that breeds in Wisconsin and winters in Florida. An experiment with a resident population in Florida has been deemed unsuccessful. In January 2007, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team formally endorsed intensive studies of habitat suitability, disease risk to the wild population, and socioeconomics to determine whether or not Louisiana would be a suitable site for reintroduction of Whooping Cranes. In April 2010, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team formally endorsed a reintroduction experiment of Whooping Cranes in southwestern Louisiana. This experiment, which is initially 3 years in length, will begin in February 2011. The population will be designated experimental, non-essential meaning that while the birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act they do not receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. Louisiana has a rich history in the story of the Whooping Crane as it historically supported both resident and wintering populations (Allen 1952). Allen (1952) indicated that Whooping Cranes used a variety of habitats in Louisiana, including tallgrass prairie, panicum marsh (paille-fine), prairie swale and prairie marsh, sawgrass and deep marsh, and sea-rim and brackish marsh (see Gomez (1992) for a more detailed summary). It has been surmised that the tallgrass prairie of Louisiana supported more Whooping Cranes than any other region in the country. Allen (1952) roughly estimated that as many as 2,500 Whooping Cranes could have wintered in this region. It has also been suggested that Whooping Cranes bred in the many potholes, or platains, in the prairie as well. E. A. McIllhenny reported that in the first half of 1880’s it was still abundant on prairies of Jeff Davis, Allen, Evangeline and Acadia Parishes (Allen 1952). As hunting pressure and rice agriculture increased throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, the breeding birds (and wintering) were exterminated from the prairies. The last record of Whooping Cranes on Louisiana prairies occurred in 1918, when a farmer shot 12 of the birds that were feeding on rice near his thresher (Allen 1952). Whooping Cranes were also abundant in a variety of other Louisiana habitats. Whooping Cranes wintered in the marshes at the fringe of the coastal prairie and in marshes near the cheniers of southwestern Louisiana. Interestingly, this interspersion of upland oak habitats with abundant marshes mimics in many ways the habitat structure used by the wild population at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Clearly, the most infamous location in Louisiana was that located by John Lynch in 1939 near White Lake in southwestern Louisiana (Gomez et al. 2005). This large paille-finne marsh was nearly inaccessible until the development of the intracoastal canal in 1929-1930. On May 15, 1939, Lynch located 13 Whooping Cranes including 2 current year chicks. According to locals, this flock was at one time much larger and stretched nearly 19 km to Grand Lake, but over hunting and other human and natural causes led to a decline in the population (Allen 1952). On 7 August 1940, a major hurricane accompanied by massive rainfall scattered the cranes Lynch had observed. Normally occupied habitats were flooded up to 1 m deep until October and water levels did not return to normal until the summer of 1941 (Stevenson 1942). Only 6 of the 13 birds returned. The birds continued to decline and in March 1950 the last remaining Whooping Crane in the White Lake marshes was captured with the aid of a helicopter (Gomez 1992). This marked a temporary end of the Whooping Crane in Louisiana. In February 2011, a cohort of 11 Whooping Cranes will be released at White Lake, Louisiana. In the subsequent 2 years, additional cohorts of birds (up to 30/year) will be released. The objectives of this study are to: 1) Determine habitat use, survival, and behavior of released Whooping Cranes; 2) Based on habitat use data, determine other potential areas for Whooping Crane release and/or refine the methods of release to enhance project success; and 3) Assist LDWF personnel in all aspects of the reintroduction program, including report and grant writing.