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U.S., state agree to start whooping crane project

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

A flock of the birds will nest in Wisconsin and spend winters in Chassahowitzka. Florida officials had questioned the plan's details.

In a boost for one of the country's endangered birds, a Florida wildlife agency is endorsing a federal plan to create a flock of migratory whooping cranes that would winter in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus and Hernando counties.

Federal officials for months have sought the endorsement, crucial to moving the plan forward. But until last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been unable to convince Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffers that the project would not threaten a promising non-migratory whooping crane effort under way near Kissimmee.

High-ranking commission and Fish and Wildlife Service officials ironed out the differences during a conference call last Friday, Frank Montalbano, the commission's division of wildlife director, said Thursday. State staffers decided to recommend the project, and the commission on Wednesday moved ahead with a unanimous endorsement.

"I'm really pleased, and we're going to do our best to make sure we live up to Florida's expectations and protect the non-migratory flock," said John Christian, assistant Region 3 Fish and Wildlife Service director and coordinator for the migratory whooping crane project.

After Wisconsin's endorsement several months ago, the commission's approval represents a green light for the Fish and Wildlife Service. The birds would fly to Florida from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin, the proposed nesting area for the experimental flock.

One of the conditions of the commission's endorsement requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain independent funding for the migratory project. In addition, the project cannot result in federally mandated hunting restrictions in Florida and cannot divert whooping cranes needed to support the Kissimmee project.

The final condition, which will be laid out in a memorandum, is that the Fish and Wildlife Service obtain approval from the states and the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyway Councils.

Christian said he has not yet seen the list of Florida's conditions that Fish and Wildlife needs to meet. But he expects to send letters to other states and councils highlighting Florida's approval.

Biologists view the creation of another migratory flock as the second step in the whooping crane recovery plan. The only remaining natural migratory flock in North America nests in northwest Canada and spends its winters near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.

The Kissimmee flock, which started in 1993, also is an integral part of the recovery plan, and state biologists have been wary of threatening the successful program to get a new one off the ground.

State biologists think that after years of intense effort, the Kissimmee cranes will begin raising chicks in the next few years.

The program costs about $225,000 annually. Two-thirds of the budget consists of federal funds set aside for the program. But because of shortfalls, the state has been diverting another $75,000 in federal money allotted for other endangered-species programs.