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Criticism stings crane protectors

Published February 19, 2007


CRYSTAL RIVER - Ever since the first group of rare whooping cranes flapped gracefully into the skies over Citrus County behind ultralights in 2001, those who make the trip possible have been seen as heroes.

The organizations that make up the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership had crafted a way to reintroduce North America's tallest and rarest bird to the eastern United States.

It was no small or inexpensive feat and required an outpouring of overwhelming commitment from organization members, staff and volunteers.

Yet in the wee hours of Feb. 2, in a dark swamp in the middle of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, a year's work perished under a killer wind and a raging storm surge.

Even as members of the partnership learned that 17 of the 18 birds in the Class of 2006 had been killed, trapped in the path of the waves in a top-netted pen, supporters rallied, sending hundreds of comforting messages and dollars to buoy up the partners.

But another group emerged, too, a group the crane partners had not heard from before: critics.

The shine of hero worship faded into a raft of negative phone calls, e-mails and Internet postings even as the crane partners struggled with their own grief.

Some questioned why the birds were kept in a closed pen. Others wondered why they were all kept in one place. Still others questioned why the birds were kept so near water and why crane keepers didn't rush out to save them when the storm turned nasty overnight.

"I'd have to say, for the most part, the negative response we got appeared to be from people not familiar with the crane project," said Liz Condie, chief executive for Operation Migration.

"We do everything possible and some things not possible to help these birds."

Losses not unusual

Staff members at the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge were also inundated with hate mail and nasty phone calls from people second-guessing the choices made to protect the young cranes.

Refuge manager Jim Kraus sat down with his staff and reminded them to keep their focus. "All of these people involved, they are all united in one mind-set: concern about the cranes," he said. "The welfare of these cranes is foremost in everybody's mind."

All wildlife reintroduction projects include losses. Even with such a catastrophic loss as this year's mortality event, Kraus said, the whooping crane reintroduction is still among the most successful ever.

It is also among the most unusual, using man-made flying machines and a host of unusual protocols to lead young birds on their first migration without letting them imprint on their human "parents."

The partners did what they did because they thought it was the best way to safeguard the young birds.

"It's easy to be an armchair quarterback, and hindsight is 20-20," Kraus said of critics.

Pens as protection

After the criticism emerged, Condie used Operation Migration's Web site to provide background on the reintroduction project and explain how the Class of 2006 ended up in the top-netted pens in Chassahowitzka.

The young birds were in enclosed pens to protect them from older cranes from previous years' migrations. Those older birds steal the food and water of the youngsters and can become aggressive. In a previous year's flock, one crane killed another during the migration.

The birds are kept in water because that is where they normally roost as a safeguard against predators.

Keeping all the birds in one place is the only way to manage them in the proper kind of habitat. "Do they understand how difficult it is to find appropriate habitat?" Condie asked.

Saving the birds once the scope of the storm was known was also not possible. The site can be reached only by airboat, a craft that cannot be safely operated at night, much less in a storm, according to Kraus. Such a remote location is chosen to keep the birds far from humans.

The strength of the storm was also not anticipated.

"One of the things that is frustrating is, Where were these people the critics when we have five years of astonishing success?" Condie wondered.

"We hear from them when we have this unprecedented, unforeseen and unpredictable event," she said. "What it really comes down to is, I don't know what else we could have done."

Joan Garland, who handles outreach for the International Crane Foundation, said the negative responses her organization has received also reflect a lack of understanding on how the program works.

As people were told about the reasons why the birds were kept the way they were, the criticism softened.

"People, they want an easy explanation for it; but unfortunately, there isn't one," Garland said. "This was an accident, a freak accident."

The next class

She said those in the partnership are trying to lift their spirits by focusing on the activities of the months ahead. Crane breeding season is just around the corner, and soon there will be word of the Class of 2007.

Eggs will hatch at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Young birds will be sent to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to learn how to migrate behind the ultralights.

And in the fall a new crop of whooping crane youngsters will wing their way from Necedah toward Central Florida.

Condie said she understands that anger is one of the stages of grief so she is trying to look ahead and find something positive in all the criticism. "At least they care," she said. "It would be a heck of a note if nobody gave a darn."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or

[Last modified February 19, 2007, 06:32:48]

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