Whooping Cranes Guided By Plane To Stay In Ala.

Published February 3, 2012 12:36AM (EST)

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A conservation effort involving an ultralight plane leading endangered whooping cranes south for the winter has been forced to stop short of its Florida destination, with officials deciding Thursday to stay in Alabama.

Operation Migration has experienced delay after delay, mostly due to weather, since leaving central Wisconsin Oct. 9. Now the nine young cranes have apparently decided to end their migration in Alabama.

It will be the first time in the 11 years of the effort to save the birds in the eastern part of the United States that a class won't make it to their wintering home at two wildlife refuges in Florida.

"You are disappointed. You have a task," said Operation Migration spokeswoman Liz Condie. "You have been phenomenally successful for 10 years, and all of sudden you are not. Well it's not expected and we don't have to like it."

The cranes and the crew of seven have been in northern Alabama since Dec. 11. The crew tried several times to get the birds to follow the bird-like aircraft, most recently on Jan. 29, but the birds have not been cooperative — trying to fly off on their own.

They've moved only 14 miles since Dec. 11. Officials don't know exactly why because migration is not fully understood.

Operation Migration is part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, a coalition of public and private groups that includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Operation Migration started in 2001. It involves workers in Wisconsin donning crane-like costumes to raise chicks hatched in captivity and then leading them in those costumes by ultralight plane to Florida in the fall.

The Eastern Partnership had its annual meeting in Wisconsin this week, where they decided Thursday the birds will be put in crates and transported by road to Alabama's Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge for the rest of the winter. It's about 45 miles northeast from their current pen site.

With the mild winter across North America, Pete Fasbender, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Green Bay, Wis., said the whooping cranes don't want to fly further south. "They're thinking about heading north here pretty quick."

Only five to seven whooping cranes are in Florida this year, Fasbender said. Bringing the young birds to Florida at this stage would disrupt their migration pattern and they would head back to Michigan instead of Wisconsin, he said.

"The birds are pretty smart. If they've got water and not a lot of snow cover, they've got food, they're not taking that risk" of flying further south, Fasbender said.

Condie said the latest the 1,300 air-mile trip had lasted until now was Jan. 28 in 2007. It's ended as early as late November.

This year's events are not yet considered a setback, she said. It depends how the birds — North America's tallest — handle the migration back north in the spring, she said.

The details of when the birds will be transported and how they will be released are still being ironed out. She said it's possible the nine whooping cranes could hook up with thousands of sandhill cranes or the handful of the whooping cranes that are at the refuge, but it's too soon to say what would happen after that.

Condie said other many other sandhill and whooping crane flocks have also stopped short of more southern destinations, apparently finding suitable habitat for living and eating. She said it could be the unusually warm winter in many parts of the nation.

The effort was also delayed about a week in Alabama waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to grant them a special exemption to continue their journey.

The group ran into trouble because it pays salaries to pilots. FAA regulations say sport planes — a category that sometimes includes aircraft of exotic design — can only be flown for personal use. The FAA granted a waiver to allow the pilots to finish the migration.

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said Thursday the FAA is working with Operation Migration about next year's flights. She said it's possible the organization will be required to file for a waiver next year or it could get an exemption.

By Salon Staff

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