CHASSAHOWITZKA — The budget stalemate in Washington will cost the west coast of Florida some popular winter visitors this year.
For the third year in a row, no whooping cranes will be led behind ultralight aircraft to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the Hernando-Citrus coastline. And some of the cranes' fans question whether they will ever return.
With open positions frozen and little funding for nonessential expenses, Michael Lusk, who manages the refuge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has decided he cannot afford to play host to the eight rare birds currently in training in Wisconsin to migrate to Florida.
Instead, the group of young cranes will be led to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Panhandle later this fall by the crane-costumed pilots of the Operation Migration wildlife reintroduction program.
"I want the whooping cranes here, but I have to make hard choices, and something has to go,'' Lusk said. "It's a loss for the cranes, but it's also a loss for getting the refuge's message out.''
The refuge at St. Marks has a pen that is accessible by truck. In Chassahowitzka, those who care for the cranes in the winter can only get there by airboat, and that takes more time and staff than Lusk can spare. His resources are already stretched because of manatee protection responsibilities in Kings Bay in Crystal River.
In an effort to reintroduce a migratory flock of whooping cranes to the eastern United States, cranes were first brought to Florida and to Chassahowitzka in 2001. For the next several years, each batch of chicks hatched in captivity and raised in Wisconsin was brought to the refuge.
But in early 2007, a severe storm killed 15 of the 16 cranes in their pen. That catastrophe prompted the partner groups that run the flock reintroduction to change their game plan.
When the crane chicks hatched in 2008, half of those designated for the ultralight-led migration were taken to St. Marks, the others to Chassahowitzka. That was repeated in 2009 and 2010.
Then, in 2011, the birds had a rough time flying south. First there was a bureaucratic glitch with the Federal Aviation Administration. Bad weather caused further delays. By February, it was too warm to convince the cranes to fly any farther south than northern Alabama, and that's where they stayed until instinct told them to fly back to Wisconsin.
Last year, there were only six cranes dedicated to the ultralight-led project — not enough to divide the flock — so they were led to St. Marks. This year's class of eight birds was destined for Chassahowitzka.
"We were figuring that we were going to Chassahowitzka,'' said Liz Condie, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Operation Migration organization. "We're feeling kind of bad about it. We hate to lose our audience and support from all our folks down there.''
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chuck Underwood said the plan for the future is still to alternate between St. Marks and Chassahowitzka. But whether the funding materializes to keep Chassahowitzka in the program, "we just don't know,'' Underwood said.
Requests for a response on the budget issue from U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, were not answered.
This was to be Lusk's last migration. He has been tapped for a manager's job at a refuge in Georgia. That means his knowledge about hosting the whooping cranes goes with him. He also noted that, with the pen in the refuge being unused for three years, it will cost more to prepare it for birds in the future.
Fred Hileman, president of the Citrus County Audubon Society, said the decision by Fish and Wildlife not to come to Chassahowitzka this year is "a disappointment."
Hileman was among a large crowd of observers who attended flyover events each year at the Marion County Airport in Dunnellon, and he fears he will not see another.
"It appears to me like we're seeing the last of it,'' Hileman said. "It's sad. It really is sad."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.