2002's Wandering Females:
Adapted From the Operation Migration Flight Journal

Date: Sept. 7, 2003
Reporter: Heather Ray
Activity: Sad news...

On Aug. 17 and 18, ICF/FWS biologist Richard Urbanek, along with Sara Zimorski and Lara Fondow, also with the International Crane Foundation, retrieved three yearling Whooping cranes from eastern South Dakota. The three females (#203, 207 & 215) had wandered west after returning to their summer home in Wisconsin in April with several of their flock mates.

Not in "Okay" Territory
It is typical for juvenile cranes to wander for a short time after returning to their northern range, especially unattached females; however, South Dakota is not listed as one of the twenty possible dispersal States/Provinces included in the Non-essential Experimental Plan (NEP). The NEP was published as a federal rule, and was necessary to carry out this reintroduction. Listed States and Provinces include the primary flyway States of: Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, as well as the neighboring States, and two Canadian Provinces; Ontario and Manitoba. This means that if any of the WCEP cranes wander into any of these listed areas, they are considered to be "experimental" and "non-essential" to the overall Whooping crane picture; however, if they venture outside of these listed areas, they once again become "endangered," and along with this come several considerations. The land they inhabit becomes endangered species habitat, regardless of what the owner planned to do with the land is just one consideration.
The NEP ruling is what allows us to dress up in goofy costumes, carry puppets, and lead these special endangered cranes across the country, using an aircraft that resembles a flying lawn chair. The NEP ruling also affords these cranes the same protection from hunters they would normally receive under the Endangered Species Act.

The Decision to Capture The Wanderers
Once it was discovered in early June that the cranes had moved to a South Dakota marsh, only 7 miles past the state line shared with Minnesota, the proper authorities were notified and numerous conference calls ensued. The decision was made to leave them alone for awhile to see if they might return to either Minnesota or Wisconsin on their own.  Unfortunately the hot dry season turned their once marshy area into a dry and cracked bed, and the girls decided to move on... Farther WEST - to excellent habitat with an abundance of crayfish. The joint decision was made between the Central Flyway Council, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and officials with the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership to collect the wandering females and return them to the reintroduction site at the Necedah NWR.

Hatching a Plan
A plan was worked out and Richard drove west to set up a temporary holding pen near the area where the cranes had been roosting. The next day, Sara and Lara drove out to join him for the capture attempt, which would take place on the evening of August 17th. Windway Capitol Corp. had again offered the use of an aircraft to return the birds to central Wisconsin and waited for word from the retrieval team. That evening the three donned the white costumes, familiar to the cranes, and approached the birds. It became immediately evident that after almost a year of spent away from the costumes, these cranes hadn't missed them - at all. Eventually, #215 was captured by hand. The transmitter was replaced, and Lara drove the bird back in an air-conditioned van through the night for release on East Rynerson Pond, at the Necedah NWR, the next morning. The original transmitter on this bird had become non-functional since July 30th so the decision was made to replace all three transmitters.

The Capture
Lara arrived at the refuge in the early morning of the 18th of August and after a brief exam by Patuxent's Brian Clauss, 215 was released on her old stomping grounds.  Sara and Richard had stayed in South Dakota for a second attempt at collecting 203, and the apparent ring-leader of the group, crane 207.

Eventually, 207 was captured by hand and herded into a nearby temporary enclosure, where it was hoped that her calls would lure in the timid and wary 203. After some time this is exactly what happened and the two were placed in individual containers and driven to the airport where they were placed in an air-conditioned room to await the arrival of the Windway aircraft that would fly them and Sara back to Necedah, WI.

The two birds were released later that afternoon on the south end of East Rynerson Pond. 203's release was unremarkable. Crane 207, however, could not fly and stumbled when walking—both are significant signs of capture myopathy. She was therefore transferred to the pen at the east Site for further evaluation by the health team.
Sad News
The news was not good. The ring-leader and most dominant of the group of three females continued to show signs of severe capture myopathy despite intensive therapy administered by several members of the field team, under direction of ICF's Dr. Barry Hartup. After continued tube feeding and physical therapy sessions, crane 207 remained alert and responsive, often biting the hands that fed her. But on the afternoon of August 30th, 12 days after her capture from South Dakota, she would still not willingly stand although her legs were strong. With heightened concerns over regurgitation of tube feeding, and a very poor outlook for her future as a wild crane, she was transported from Necedah NWR to ICF to be humanely euthanized.

Many thanks are due to the field team, and especially Sara Zimorski, Lara Fondow, Richard Urbanek and Dr. Barry Hartup for doing everything possible to rehabilitate 207.

Journey North is pleased to feature this educational adventure made possible by the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP).