Thursday, August 26, 2010

Officials plan to reintroduce whooping cranes to La. habitat

A plan to reintroduce the endangered whooping crane into marsh land near White Lake in Vermilion Parish was announced Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
By RICHARD BURGESS Advocate Acadiana bureau Published: Aug 20, 2010

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday announced a plan to reintroduce the endangered whooping crane into a south Louisiana marsh where the giant birds once lived decades ago.

If the proposal moves forward as expected, the first young whooping cranes could be released at the state's White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in Vermilion Parish as early as February, said Bill Brooks, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
White Lake was historically a home for the birds and was among the last areas inhabited by whooping cranes, which were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s because of loss of habitat and hunting.

Scientists have studied the White Lake area in recent years to determine if it might support a new population of the cranes, which can rise to nearly 5 feet tall.
"What we are finding is that it still looks like good habitat," Brooks said.
A total of 395 whooping cranes now live in the wild, most of those in a flock that migrates between Canada and a wildlife refuge on the Texas coast.

That flock, the only one that survived through midcentury, had dwindled to 15 birds in the 1940s but now stands at about 263, according to information from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The proposal for Louisiana would be the fourth effort to reintroduce whooping cranes into the wild.

One, in the Rocky Mountains, was unsuccessful, and two are ongoing — the reintroduction of a flock that lives year round in Florida and a flock that migrates between Florida and the northern United States.

The migration process must be learned by the birds, and biologists have attempted to teach it to the reintroduced migratory flock by conditioning the birds to follow ultralight aircraft.

The plan in Louisiana is to establish a resident flock that stays year-round, Brooks said.
He said the birds would be hatched in captivity and raised in isolation to minimize human contact.

The cranes would be released while still less than a year old into an fenced area of a few acres, which would allow the birds to acclimate to the new environment and have access to supplemental food if needed, Brooks said.

He said from 8 to 16 birds might be introduced the first year, with up to 30 birds annually after that.

The project will be monitored by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The Fish and Wildlife Service published an official notice of the whooping crane plan in the Federal Register on Thursday, which opens a two-month public comment period that ends on Oct. 18.

Two public hearings are scheduled for next month — one on Sept. 15 in Gueydan and another on Sept. 16 in Baton Rouge.

Whooping cranes are protected as an endangered species, but the regulations concerning the birds would not be as strict in south Louisiana because the flock is being proposed as a "non-essential, experimental" population.

That means the intentional killing of a whooping crane would still be a violation of federal law, but accidental killing and harm or threats to nests related to hunting, farming, trapping or other legal activities would not be deemed a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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