Letter: Sadness and disappointment expressed over whooping crane shooting

The deliberate loss of an iconic symbol of hope in the face of extinction is unfathomable

To the Expositor:

The Manitoulin Nature Club wishes to express its sadness and disappointment at the shooting of whooping crane, No. 37-17, on Barrie Island on May 5. While it will come as no surprise that the members of our organization are appalled at this event, it has taken some time to craft an appropriate response to it. Preaching to the converted might make us feel good but hardly changes anything; preaching to anybody else inevitably turns people off and advances nothing. In keeping with our mandate and mission statement, we believe that promoting knowledge and understanding of our natural environment is the best way to encourage greater respect for and appreciation of Manitoulin’s natural heritage. The story of efforts to save the whooping crane provides a good example of what can be done. It also helps to explain why the death of every single whooping crane is a step backwards for the survival of the species. (I would like to thank club member Jan McQuay for researching the details of this ongoing mission, as described below.)

In the 1940s, there were no more than 22 of these spectacular white cranes left on the entire planet. Their habitats had disappeared as settlers hunted them indiscriminately and drained their marshy habitat for agriculture. In the 1930s and 1940s, with the advent of electricity grids, many of these large birds died from electrocution. Others in all probability died from poisoning, whether deliberate or unintentional. One small surviving flock, the very last flock of their kind, still migrated back and forth between Texas and northern Alberta. It looked like the whooping crane, hanging on by a thread, would go extinct just like the passenger pigeon in the early 1900s. The last of that species, Martha, died in a Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. With her death, a species that in the 1800s had flown in the millions across North America was completely gone. 

How the one flock of whooping cranes managed to hang on is perhaps a miracle, because efforts to save these magnificent birds did not begin until 1967 with the first captive breeding program. But in spite of conservationists’ Herculean efforts, the number of whooping cranes has grown painfully slowly. Whooping cranes don’t breed “like rabbits.” They don’t start reproducing until they are about five years old, they rarely lay more than two eggs in a year, and it is even more rare for more than one chick to survive to fledge. They are also migratory, and they must learn migratory patterns from their parents. As a solution to this shortcoming of the breeding program, biologists in Maryland came up with an ingenious solution: they donned whooping crane costumes and even modified an ultra-light plane to resemble a crane in flight.

The hope—well-founded, it turned out —was that juvenile cranes raised without parents would imprint on a plane and follow it into the skies, on a migration path from places like Florida to Wisconsin. One of the dedicated pilots, Joseph Duff, was a Canadian. This team led a total of 186 whooping cranes on migration routes between 2001 and 2018.

But after 13 years, US authorities issued a disappointing summary of the eastern migratory program. Of 250 captive whooping cranes released between 2001 and 2015, only 93 still survived in 2015 and there were only 27 reproductive pairs. Only seven baby chicks had survived to fledge and only two of those had nested successfully by 2015.

Last year, in 2018, the program was more successful, with six chicks in Wisconsin surviving to flight stage. Still, progress is pitifully slow. There are now about 500 individuals in the wild and 300 in captivity. In 2017 the Trump government cancelled the whooping crane recovery program in Maryland as a cost-cutting measure. Some of the individuals were moved to the Calgary Zoo. 

Each individual whooping crane is so important to the survival of the species that it is tracked upon release. In April 2019, one individual, No. 37-17, flew from Indiana to the upper peninsula of Michigan, then to Thessalon, then to Barrie Island west of Gore Bay. She was a female who had hatched in 2017 and was raised in captivity. News spread about this entirely unexpected arrival, the first whooping crane sighted on Manitoulin Island, probably since the 1800s. She was with a flock of Sandhill cranes. Then on May 5, the trackers realized that she had stopped moving. Island authorities were contacted, the remains were found and it was determined the crane had been shot. Apparently, two shots were heard that day in the vicinity, one sounding like a shotgun, the other like a 22-calibre rifle. The death of 37-17 is a blow to the recovery of the species. Both the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and the police are taking this incident very seriously. Investigations are ongoing and the public is encouraged to help out by contacting Crime Stoppers. 

But this incident is part of a much larger problem. World-wide, the picture is dire for species at risk. The United Nations published a major report just last month, warning that around one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history—and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” they conclude. The number of land-based species has fallen by at least 20 percent since 1900. A recent article by Dr. Joe Shorthouse in the pages of this newspaper indicates the numbers may be even more dire in the case of insects. Much of this is due to the indirect effects of human activities, such as climate change, habitat loss, changes in land use, indiscriminate use of pesticides, unregulated hunting, pollution and spread of invasive species. 

The whooping crane is an iconic species, known not only for its beauty and majesty, but also as one of the most famous symbols of a (so far) successful effort to slow down the rising tide of extinction. It reminds of what people can accomplish when they work together in a concerted, collaborative effort. It is almost unfathomable to think that someone could deliberately sabotage such a hopeful endeavor. Ignorance may be more of a factor than malevolence here, but as the UN report reminds us, each of us—from national governments down to each individual—must realize that we are all part of nature and that our well-being depends on maintaining healthy ecosystems and biological diversity. We all have a role to play in making our lifestyle more sustainable.

Yours truly,

Marcel Bénéteau, president

Manitoulin Nature Club