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Whooping cranes reach county

By Staff
Jonathan Willis
Fourteen whooping crane chicks reached Franklin County Friday on their ultralight-guided migration from Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin to Chassahowitzka and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuges along Florida's Gulf Coast.
These majestic birds, the tallest in North America, left Necedah refuge on Oct. 17, following four ultralight aircraft. For the first time, they will pass through the state of Alabama. Alabama is one of the seven states the ultralight-guided migration will fly over before reaching Florida.
The 50-mile flight leg before reaching Russellville came from Hardin County, Tenn.
Five whooping cranes were trucked into Alabama after they broke away from the lead ultralight.
"The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is pleased that efforts to help the endangered whooping cranes migrate to Florida will bring the birds into Alabama for the first time," said Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division Director Corky Pugh.
"We hope that Alabama's landscape and mild winds will help make this a successful migration for the birds."
The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, an international coalition of public and private groups, is conducting this project, now in its eighth year, in an effort to reintroduce this endangered species in eastern North America.
"This is an exciting year for the reintroduction project with the addition of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in the Florida panhandle," said Sam D. Hamilton, Southeast Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We wish the intrepid pilots of Operation Migration all the best with the new route as they enter the Southeast, and hope for a safe and speedy arrival at St. Marks and Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge."
There are now 68 migratory whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America — including the first whooping crane chick to hatch in the wild in Wisconsin in more than a century.
"The State of Alabama is a key partner in this unprecedented effort to reintroduce whooping cranes into the eastern flyway," said John Christian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership founding partner.
"We are grateful for the efforts of Alabama and our other state colleagues in helping to make this project a success. Quite simply, we couldn't do this without them."
Each fall, pilots from Operation Migration, also a founding partner, leads a new generation of whooping cranes behind their ultralight aircraft to wintering grounds in Florida. The cranes will make the return flight on their own to the Upper Midwest in the spring.
The Whooping Crane Recovery Team has established a target number for this reintroduction. Once there are at least 125 individuals, including 25 breeding pairs, migrating in this eastern corridor the population could be considered self-sustaining. With 68 birds now in the wild and another 20 soon to be released this project is well past the half way mark.
Whooping cranes were on the verge of extinction in the 1940s. Today, there are only about 500 birds in existence, 350 of them in the wild. Aside from the 68 Wisconsin-Florida birds, the only other migrating population of whooping cranes nests at the Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.