Conservationist sounds alarm over future of North's whooping cranes

A new interpretation of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act means companies won't face penalties when birds are accidentally killed as a result of their operations.

George Archibald says changes to U.S. migratory bird laws put the endangered species further at risk

A whooping crane flies over the Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Fulton, Texas. Changes to how migratory bird laws in the U.S. are interpreted mean companies working in industries like oil or gas will no longer face penalties for accidentally killing birds as a result of their work. (Associated Press/Pat Sullivan)

A Canadian conservationist who has dedicated his life to protecting endangered whooping cranes is sounding the alarm over the reinterpretation of a U.S. migratory bird law designed to keep them from harm.

George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, says a new legal opinion from the United States Department of the Interior, released Dec. 22, spells danger for the species.

The memo from the Office of the Solicitor means companies in the U.S. will no longer face penalties under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for accidentally killing birds as a result of their work — for example, if they are caught in power lines or tailings ponds.

It could be bad news for Canada, too, as the birds migrate north each spring to nest in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. 

George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, observes a family of sarus cranes in Buriram, Thailand. Archibald worries a new interpretation of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act puts whooping cranes at risk. (Associated Press/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

"These proposed changes will make it a much more dangerous world for the whooping crane," Archibald said. "One of the greatest threats to this species is industrial waste associated with accidents." 

If an environmental mishap such as an oil or chemical spill were to occur, Archibald said the world could lose most of its cranes.

He worries companies are going to be more careless if they do not face penalties for accidental bird deaths caused by their activities.

But the changes would not affect companies in Canada.

Sherry Sian, manager of environment with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in a statement that Canadian oil and gas producers are required to follow a number of rules related to wildlife protection. That includes complying with Canada's Species at Risk Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act and other provincial or territorial laws.

Companies also use things like noise cannons, eye-safe lasers, strobe lights and scarecrows to deter birds from harm, she said.

"Environmental leadership is critical for Canada's oil and natural gas industry to become a global supplier of choice," Sian said.

The whooping crane population once numbered around 1,500 birds in the 1800s and could be found throughout central North America, according to Parks Canada. However, that number dropped to a mere 21 in 1941.

Since then, the population has somewhat recovered. 

Today, there are approximately 431 whooping cranes in the Wood Buffalo-Aransas flock, according to Rhona Kindopp, manager of resource conservation for Wood Buffalo National Park. That flock migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas every year, according to Parks Canada.

Last year's group of crane hatchlings was the largest ever recorded, Kindopp said in an email. Sixty-three chicks were born in 2017, including four sets of twins.

"It is difficult to overstate their importance," she said of the birds. "They represent the last naturally-breeding whooping crane flock in the world and are a symbol of successful international co-operation in conservation."

But the cranes remain endangered, and Archibald said the U.S.'s new interpretation of the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act is "a big step back."

But he said there is still time for change.

"It has to pass in Congress and as yet it is not passed," said Archibald.

He added he plans to write letters to elected representatives, and environmental and non-profit organizations in Washington are meeting with politicians.

"There's a hue and cry against it," said Archibald. "The lobbying, I'm hoping, will be effective."

With files from Loren McGinnis and Brandon Maher

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