Above: whooping cranes in flight (USFWS)
Featured photo: Josh More/flickr

Flying over the wide open prairies on my way back from a meeting at the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, I reflected on the amazing story of survival of a North American species that also flies through these skies, the iconic whooping crane. Once threatened with extinction, long-term collaborative efforts that integrate wild and captive conservation strategies have enabled these striking birds to persist.

While never numerous, it is estimated that whooping cranes may have historically numbered more than ten thousand and ranged across the prairies from Canada to Mexico. Sadly, loss of habitat due to agricultural expansion and draining of wetlands throughout their range, as well as shooting and egg collecting drove these large birds to the brink of extinction. In 1938, only 14 breeding adults remained in the wild, continuing to migrate between breeding grounds in the Northwest Territories and overwintering grounds in Texas.

To save the whooping crane from extinction, partners in Canada and the US have collaborated for many decades on intensive conservation efforts including population monitoring, protection of breeding, wintering, and migratory habitat, developing a captive breeding population, reintroducing birds to the wild, and conducting novel research. Through these measures the wild population has increased to 230 breeding adults with expanded breeding grounds, and two additional flocks have been established.

Despite these conservation successes, the small whooping crane population is still vulnerable to impacts from development, climate change, predation, and catastrophes like wildfire and hurricanes, and while the reintroduced populations help maintain genetic diversity, they are not yet sustainable on their own. Fortunately, conservation methods that link management efforts in the wild with those in captive populations, like headstarting and conservation-focused research that are staples of the work at WPC, can help support the recovery of species like the whooping crane.

At this meeting in Wisconsin, an international team of crane experts and conservation practitioners convened to keep this important recovery work going, by developing an updated conservation plan that will benefit the species based on the best available science. The strong partnerships and long term commitment to whooping crane conservation provide hope for the future of these beautiful birds in Canada and the US.

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