|Endangered Species of Canada Stories by the Edmonton Journal, December 1999
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A GUIDE TO WILDLIFE AT RISK
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Species, a federal advisory group, has created a list of 340 animals and plants that are in some jeopardy. Here are the categories the committee uses:
Extinct The species no longer exists in Canada
Extirpated A species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere.
Endangered A species that faces imminent extirpation or extinction.
Threatened A species likely to become endangered if limiting factors are not reversed.
Vulnerable A species of special concern because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.
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Blue Flag [a flower]
The Edmonton Journal
November 22, 1999.
Whooping cranes face uphill battle
Disease, oil spills or other calamities could easily derail conservation efforts
Journal Staff Writer
WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK
For more than an hour, we pulled traps from shallow ponds along the Alberta Northwest Territories border counting dace, stickleback, dragonfly larvae and other insects the areas whooping cranes might be feeding on.
Few ponds in this remote part of Wood Buffalo National Park have a depth of more than 15 to 20 centimetres, but the bottoms are so spongy one often sinks waist deep.
Since the 1940s, when just 22 migrating whooping cranes could be accounted for in the world, only a handful of scientists and park wardens have ventured into these swamps.
The fear was that even the least bit of disturbance might set off a chain of events that would result in injury or death to one of the young birds of the season.
Now that there are some 183 migrating whoopers in the wild, national park warden Doug Bergeson has been trying to determine what the great white birds feed on and what limits there may be to any plan to get the species off the endangered list in Canada and the United States.
He has found the bird has a tough enough time in its struggle to survive without all the problems that humans sometimes put in their way. Of the 12 chicks equipped with radio transmitters this spring, only four could be accounted for by June 30. Another three were abandoned by the parents and died of exposure or sibling rivalry, two were killed by predators, most likely a fox. Three shed their transmitters.
In once case, Canadian Wildlife Service scientist Brian Johns, working alongside Bergeson at the time, used a blind to watch one family group. What he saw was a three day old chick engaged in a persistent, vicious pecking of its 12 hour old sibling. Then when the parents walked off the nest with the older chick to feed at the other end of the pond, a raven flew off with the younger bird.
"It just goes to show why it is so rare for more than one young crane to be produced by a nesting pair in a season," says Bergeson.
"And this was a relatively poor year for them up here. We had only 17 chicks by summers end compared to the 24 we got last year and the 34 there were the year before that."
The whooping crane population may have been spiralling downward long before Europeans arrived on the continent. A creature of the wetlands, it is the victim of drought which has gone on for millennia and has dried up vast areas of wetlands.
Robert Porter Allen, a U.S. scientist who tirelessly traced the life history of the whooper earlier in the century, estimates no more than 1,300 existed on the continent prior to the American Civil War or Canadian Confederation.
But the 20th century also produced a continental trade in birds and waterfowl that was pursued so bullishly that not even the miniscule hummingbird was left untargeted.
Small populations of whooping cranes dictated that they were not significantly represented in the recorded kills. Still, 67 birds were shot in the 1890s, 59 in the 1900s and 55 in the 1910s. Although a hunting ban was instituted in 1916, only 29 whoopers could be accounted for in 1937 when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt finally signed the executive order that formalized the purchase of 20,000 hectares for a whooping crane refuge at Aransas, on the Gulf of Mexico.
Why the whooper has done so poorly while its northern cousin, the sandhill crane, has thrived, remains a mystery. But thats not for lack of trying on the part of scientists and conservationists.
The Canadian American plan to get the whooping crane off the endangered list has been one of the longest, most expensive such efforts in North America.
Success, in part, can be measured by the fact some 364 are in the wild or in captivity today.
But disease, an oil spill near Aransas, a hurricane, tornado or other calamity could set the recovery program back decades.
Efforts to produce viable flocks elsewhere have so far failed or produced mixed results.
Back in the 1980s, scientists plucked more than 200 eggs from the nests of birds at Wood Buffalo and slipped them beneath surrogate sandhill crane parents at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho, the rationale being that only one of the two eggs was likely to produce a viable chick. But with only 13 birds to account for at Grays Lake in 1990-91, the International Whooping Crane recovery team suspended the program.
A few years later, they tried again in central Florida with captive reared whooping cranes that had been bred at the U.S. Geological Surveys Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre in Maryland.
The cranes, however, seemed to have no clue about how to avoid predators. Nearly 60 per cent of the birds were killed by bobcats in the first few years.
Now the recovery team is looking to Bill Lishman, the Canadian who realised his childhood dream of flying with geese and parlayed it into a wildlife recovery project and Hollywood film, to teach a captive flock of endangered whooping cranes from either the Calgary Zoo or Patuxent to migrate from central Wisconsin to Florida.
Ernie Kuyt is an Edmonton based Canadian Wildlife Service scientist who spent a quarter century nursing and managing the species in Canada. Kuyt, who once used a plane to follow them on their migration from Wood Buffalo to Texas, doesnt like the idea.
"I dont think an ultralight can come close to reflecting the true nature of the whooping cranes migration," he said.
"Thats not how the whooping crane flies. They travel more like a glider, circling up to catch an air current and gliding down until they find another thermal along the way. You cant mimic with an ultralight an energy saving flight that has evolved over tens of thousands of years."
That said, Kuyt says if he had to do it all over again, hed plunge right into it.
"Personally, it was most satisfying to be involved in the whooping cranes comeback. Sure a lot of money was spent, and maybe some people might say that it wasnt worthwhile, that the birds might have come back on their own. Well never know.
"But I believe that the whooping crane is a symbol of an international conservation effort, and what we can do to bring back an endangered species. Both countries shared responsibilities for them and both countries did what was needed to get the job done. During my time at it, at least, it was an effort where politics did not significantly get in the way."