CHASSAHOWITZKA — They have survived ferocious winter winds, power lines and even bobcats. Now, the endangered whooping cranes may be facing their biggest obstacle yet.
Over the last year and a half, five cranes meticulously raised and conditioned have been shot and killed along their migratory route, from Wisconsin to Central Florida and other areas of the South.
That means about 5 percent of the estimated 100 whooping cranes in the eastern U.S. have been lost, a devastating blow to the partnership of public and private agencies behind a 10-year initiative to repopulate the species.
"The amount of effort that goes into a program such as this — hatching young, raising them, teaching them to migrate — is absolutely huge," said Tom MacKenzie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The loss of any of those birds to nonnatural causes is not acceptable."
The latest crane to be found dead was discovered Jan. 28 in Cherokee County, Ala., where some of the birds roost for the winter. It is unclear if any of the five dead birds were shot in the air or on the ground.
The bird found in Alabama was one that learned the route from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge by following ultralight aircraft.
The death was especially difficult for organizers because the bird had nested with a female in the spring and the pair produced a chick, though it did not survive. To date, only three wild chicks from the reintroduction program have survived long enough to begin the migration.
"This is a 6-year-old bird, one of a couple of dozen that are old enough, sexually mature, and could breed," said Liz Condie of Operation Migration, which conducts the ultralight migration.
"This crane had a chick. Could this be any freaking worse?" Condie said.
The mate of that crane was part of a second program in which birds learned the migratory route by following wild whooping cranes and sandhill cranes, rather than ultralights.
Three of those cranes were found shot to death in Calhoun County, Georgia on Dec. 30. Two males and a female, they all were hatched in 2010.
Though rare, this is not the first time the cranes have been shot as they made their way hundreds of miles from Wisconsin to their winter homes in the South.
In November 2009, a crane hatched in 2002 and led south by an ultralight was found shot to death in Vermillion County, Ind.
That crane was characterized as "the most important bird in the entire Eastern migratory population" because she had hatched and raised the first wild whooping crane in the eastern United States in more than a century.
Her offspring, a female, is still part of the roughly 100 whooping cranes comprising the eastern migratory population.
Condie said she does not think hunters are to blame in the bird killings because they generally are more concerned about protecting natural resources.
"There can be no good reason," Condie said. "It's either ignorance or downright callousness."
Organizers of the migratory program are so concerned about the well-being of the cranes that they are raised by handlers who wear crane costumes to help the birds maintain their wariness of humans.
Whooping cranes, the tallest birds in North America at 5 feet, were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. With human intervention, there are now about 570 whooping cranes with about 400 of those in the wild.
That means each whooping crane is a precious commodity, Condie said.
"Can you place a value on the loss of this bird given the potential it had?" she said. "Either you want to save a species or not."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.