The whooping crane has long been the flagship of the conservation movement. The majestic bird—North America's tallest—flies more than 8,000 kilometres each year, breeding in northern Alberta and wintering in marshes along the Texas coast. Still, its future remains uncertain.
Today we think of species becoming endangered when sprawling big box stores and subdivisions displace remnant natural areas within and around our cities or when large-scale industrial resource extraction fragments wilderness areas.
Whooping cranes have a longer history. In the late 1800s, Canadians began farming the prairies, expelling cranes from their breeding habitat. At the same time, Americans drained west coast marshes, where whooping cranes overwintered. Hunting also contributed to their decline.
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North America was once home to more than 10,000 cranes. By 1938, the population reached an all-time low of 14 known adults.
In the early 1940s, the conservation movement leapt into action.
Over seventy years later, after significant breeding-area protection, captive breeding, aircraft-led migration and relocation efforts, the whooping crane has made a slow, often tenuous comeback.
Today there are several captive-bred and non-migratory populations, but only one—shared by the U.S. and Canada—that is self-sustaining and wild. That group breeds every year in Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Northwest Territories and Alberta, and winters in Texas, flying about 4,000 kilometres each way.
Although the population has been steadily increasing—there were 74 nests counted in Wood Buffalo National Park in 2013 and a few breeding pairs outside the park—it still faces a number of perilous risks in Texas and Alberta—not un-coincidently, the oil kings of North America.
Despite the many years and millions of dollars dedicated to the recovery of the whooping crane, continued habitat degradation darkens its recovery horizon.
According to COSEWIC, Canada's independent science assessment body of at-risk species, U.S. chemical spills are one of the biggest threats:
"...the greatest concern is in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway on the Texas coast. Numerous oil and gas wells and connecting pipelines are located in bay and upland sites near the cranes' winter habitat, and many barges carrying dangerous, toxic chemicals travel the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway daily through Whooping Crane winter habitat. A spill or leak of these substances could contaminate or kill the cranes' food supply or poison the cranes."
Although the birds have a national protected area in Canada to breed, they still need to survive along their migration and stopover route—right over the Alberta tar sands.
One of the most serious threats to the population is juvenile birds dying during their migration from Wood Buffalo to Texas. They risk landing in toxic tailings ponds, flying into power lines and exposure to water and air contaminated by the bitumen extraction process.
The fact that there is only one self-sustaining wild population of crane heightens the risk of a single, catastrophic event.
Crane recovery efforts cannot be done in isolation. National parks that protect Canadian breeding areas are important, but insufficient if the cranes can't safely make their way back to Texas for their blue crab feast.
For the whooping crane—and for Canada's over 300 other at-risk species—we need to find ways to maintain healthy, functioning ecosystems even where development occurs.