Endangered migration: The affliction of the whooping crane in Georgia
How an unfortunate tragedy has led to increased awareness for an often-overlooked native species.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 00:36
Photo: Muddy River Photography/Flickr
The value of life proves to be overwhelmingly subjective, and unfortunately, in the way of wildlife conservation efforts, this subjectivity lends itself to problematic (and quite often irreversible) effects. One such hopeless situation occurred in Georgia, in late December 2010, and has yet to go through the justice system.
It was on Dec. 30, 2010 that local hunters in Valdosta, Ga., discovered the bodies of three endangered whooping cranes, each in close range to one another. The necropsy exposed that the endangered animals were the victims of careless gunfire. This particular loss of species is dire, as the worldwide population of whooping cranes remains at a meager 570 members. Derived from that total population, only 400 will survive in the wild, and only 100 members will participate in the annual migration to South Georgia.
No stranger to adversity, this undeniably rare bird has experienced the devastating effects of habitat loss and disruption, and is now confounded by the threat of hunting. In the grand efforts to assist the crane in restoring its population totals, the federal government has provided financial aid to fund captive breeding, in addition to a wide array of regulations observed by both state and federal agencies to protect the species. Both the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act exist as leagues of defense for various threatened species, including the whooping crane.
The whooping crane is an extraordinary bird in that it not only measures in at an astounding five feet tall, making it the tallest North American bird in existence, but it is also interesting that cranes mate for life. The species tends to reside in a wetland environment, which lends itself to a diet of frogs, aquatic plants and various shellfish. The distinctive name was bestowed upon the species as it accurately describes the cranes' thunderous unison calls.
At less than one year old, these particular adolescents were a part of a group of eight whooping cranes that migrated from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, in-line with an ultralight aircraft, aimed at indicating the proper geographic path during migration, which ultimately led the birds to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. This grouping had been attached with transmitting devices to monitor migratory progress as part of the autumn release program. This flight was one of many, as part of what is known simply as Operation Migration, that has been functioning as an aide to the whooping crane breed for more than ten years. It remains an irrefutable disservice that nearly half of this breeding troupe was entirely removed from the critically endangered population.
As one may infer from an incident of this nature, investigators are labeling the act "highly suspicious." A local farmer in Calhoun County had previously reported seeing these particular birds in the area. It was two weeks after this report was filed that the bodies were discovered. On Jan. 28, Alabama officials reported a similar incident in which it was determined that a six-year-old male whooping crane was shot to death at Weiss Lake en route to the Wildlife Refuge in Florida, a trip this particular bird had successfully completed the year prior.
Both the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are closely monitoring and investigating these incidents. Local officials are asking that the hunting and boating community pay special attention to suspicious activity that may provide critical information that will ultimately facilitate the solving of both the Calhoun and Weiss Lake tragedies. A $6,000 reward is being offered in regard to the Weiss Lake incident, while a $20,800 reward is offered for critical information surrounding the Calhoun County deaths.