PRATT, Kansas, November 6, 2008 (ENS) - The whooping cranes are back. Each year, some of these birds - the largest and rarest of North American cranes - make a stop in central Kansas, at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, near Great Bend, or at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles south of Cheyenne Bottoms.
Currently, officials at both sites are reporting the presence of whoopers. Cheyenne Bottoms staff reported eight birds on November 4, and an undetermined number of birds has been reported at Quivira, as well as another small group several miles south.
To protect them, Cheyenne Bottoms has closed the hunting of sandhill cranes and white geese on the area's firing line until further notice. Quivira has suspended all hunting on the national refuge until further notice.
An estimated 266 whoopers - the largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes - will migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in the Canadian Northwest Territories to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Texas this fall.
This migration route takes them directly through the center of the Central Flyway, offering Kansas wildlife watchers an opportunity to see one of the rarest birds in the world.
Officials with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks say they and their colleagues with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor the birds' movements and lift hunting restrictions once they are certain the cranes have moved south.
Tom Stehn, whooping crane coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, reported in September that 2008 was an excellent production year for whooping cranes in Canada.
There were 41 fledged chicks from a record 66 nests that Stehn says "should equate into a substantial population increase in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock in the 2008-09 winter."
However, he warns, threats to the flock, including water and land development in Texas, wind farm construction in the migration corridor, and tar sands waste ponds in Canada all increased in 2008.
The tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane was once on the brink of extinction. It is making a steady recovery due to intensive management efforts in Canada and the United States.
As of September 2008, the total population of wild whooping cranes numbered 387, with cranes in captivity numbering 152, bringing the total population to 539.
In December 2004, wildlife experts said 468 whooping cranes existed in the wild and in captivity.
The species was reduced to 16 individuals in 1941, according to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab. Captive breeding established a captive population and efforts have been made to establish additional wild populations in Florida and Wisconsin; neither of which is yet self-sustaining.
The species is probably safe from imminent extinction, but threats remain, Cornell says.
While their habitat is protected, it is limited, leaving the birds vulnerable to catastrophic weather events or contaminant spills. Development near wintering sites is also a concern.
The Aransas range in Texas is protected as is the whoopers' last breeding area in Wood Buffalo National Park. But, Aransas abuts an intercoastal waterway with heavy commercial barge traffic. Wildlife biologists want to establish new populations to ensure the species could not be wiped out by an oil spill there.
Collisions with power lines have killed or injured at least 19 whooping cranes since 1956. Two whooping cranes were shot to death by hunters in Kansas in November 2004, mistaken for sandhill cranes, a game species.
Whooping crane recovery efforts involve many agencies and organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in the United States and in Canada. Efforts include habitat management, captive breeding, and leading birds along migration routes with ultralight aircraft.
Crane experts agree that continued intensive management of habitat, captive breeding and reintroduction programs, and population monitoring is essential to the recovery of the species.
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