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Crane migration closer to reality

A regulatory board okays a plan to lead endangered whooping cranes to a refuge.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


CHASSAHOWITZKA -- Efforts to establish a migratory flock of whooping cranes in Florida moved a step forward Wednesday when a regulatory board in Wisconsin approved a plan to lead the birds here using an ultralight airplane.

Under the experiment, which was shown to work last fall with sandhill cranes, whooper chicks would be trained at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin and flown to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in October.

The hope is that the cranes, of which only 400 remain, would begin to reproduce and migrate between the two locations on their own.

"Since Wisconsin is the state they are being released to and reared in, we have to have approval from our Natural Resources Board," said Beth Goodman, a biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Wednesday's approval added to the growing support for the ambitious project. Organizers have conditional approval from 20 states, including Florida, that could be affected by the migration.

"So far, so good," said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis. "We've gotten green lights to this point but there are still a number of things that have to be done before we can proceed."

Most critical is a federal rule allowing the whoopers to be classified as "experimental, nonessential." Under this relaxed endangered species regulation, landowners would not be federally liable if a crane is shot accidentally on their property.

"The rule reassures people that this beautiful bird is not going to come with federal baggage," Christian said.

When he took office in January, President Bush passed a moratorium on any new rules being printed in the Federal Register before his staff can review them. The mandate had researchers concerned because of the tight timeline the crane project must follow if the birds are to fly in October.

There is still a possibility the project will be delayed for a year, but it has gained attention from high-profile advocates, including former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and new Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has been receptive.

Once the rule is published, possibly as early as Monday, a 45-day comment period will take place. A public hearing has been scheduled for early April at the Plantation Inn in Crystal River.

The unusual migration technique using ultralights already has been tested. In November, 11 sandhill cranes, a more abundant relative to the whooper, landed at St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve in Crystal River, capping a 40-day, 1,250-mile journey through seven states.

The cranes have remained at the preserve during the winter but have shown signs of restlessness. All but one has been missing since last weekend, leaving researchers scrambling to locate them.

"We're not sure if they have migrated or not," said Chuck Underwood, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Jacksonville.

"That may not be unusual because this time of year they move farther and father away," Underwood addded. "If they are migrating North, that's great."

Even before they were hatched at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the sandhills were exposed to the sound of an ultralight.

They were eventually taken to Wisconsin and put through rigorous training. They never saw an actual human, only a person in a costume.

The 10 or so whooping cranes that would be used in the project would be hatched in May and taken in early June to Wisconsin, where they would train throughout the summer.

Then, in October, they would begin the journey to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. The trip would be replicated four additional times, with the goal of establishing a migratory flock of more than 100 whoopers.

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