Wood Buffalo-descended cranes struggling in Louisiana

An effort to re-introduce the whooping crane to the state of Louisiana is seeing mixed results.
The whooping cranes in Louisiana are descended from an egg-sharing program at Wood Buffalo National Park. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

An effort to re-introduce the whooping crane to the state of Louisiana is seeing mixed results.

The American birds are descendants of the endangered Wood Buffalo - Aransas flock. After coming close to extinction a few decades ago, the whooping crane population bounced back to nearly 500 thanks to an egg-sharing program with Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.

But humans are challenging the success of the population’s recovery.

Biologists in Louisiana have been tracking a flock of 10 whooping cranes they received from a conservation pen in February. They were tagged with transmitters so researchers could track them when they were released.

But today, there's only four left of the original 10. One died from an illness and two were eaten by coyotes. Two more were shot dead this fall — two teenagers have been charged in that case.

"It was definitely a setback and it was something that upsets us. When you introduce populations like this, mortality is something you're going to experience anyway … unfortunately after these two were shot, it knocked us down to 50 per cent, you know, lessened our chances with this first group," said Gabe Giffin from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife.

News of the deaths caught the attention of conservation officers in the North.

"It points to an ignorance about whooping cranes with these individuals or a disregard for their significance.  And it's also disappointing because these efforts take a huge investment in terms of the work required," said Stuart Macmillan, manager of resource conservation at Wood Buffalo National Park.

Biologists to try re-introducing cranes again

The majestic birds, which unlike their ancestors aren’t trained to migrate, haven't been seen in the state's wetlands for 60 years. Biologists are trying the program again with a new flock of 16 cranes that just arrived at the beginning of December. They’ll release the second flock to the wetlands in a month.

"This is a bird a lot of people might not have seen, or our hunters — it's something that seems odd to them. We need to educate not only our hunters but our citizens as to what these birds are doing here and why we want to keep it here," said Giffin.

The program will cost more than $4 million over 15 years. Biologists in Louisiana are hopeful this whooping crane population will soon be able to stand on its own two feet.