This update is reprinted from the May 2014 issue of The ICF Bugle
Picturing a Future for Whooping Cranes
I would have failed photography school. Whenever I find myself in the exotic crane places of the world, I am flanked by photographers who are able to capture the elegance and excitement – the pure charisma – of cranes in the most breathtaking ways. My camera, however, tends to focus less on the dramatic beauty and more on the menacing threats to the crane world. A Blue Crane roosting under a big, ugly powerline – click! A Wattled Crane struggling to feed on a parched, dusty floodplain – snap!
In Texas, the “money shot” I’ve long sought is a Whooping Crane searching for blue crabs in a hyper-saline coastal marsh…against a backdrop of oil supertankers and petrochemical-laden barges traversing the inter-coastal waterway. To me, such photos – while disturbing – express the real story of cranes as symbols of the struggle to secure a future for wildlife, wild places, and people amidst the inexorable march of progress.
Last month, I traveled to Texas for further conversations about land and water management in the Guadalupe-San Antonio River basin. Some of the best minds in Texas are collaborating to find innovative solutions for getting water where it is desperately needed to sustain the estuarine wintering grounds and the communities who live along the coast. We applauded the efforts of San Antonio, which has some of the most effective water conservation practices in the country, while recognizing that such efforts alone are not sufficient to secure enough fresh water for the coast. We strategized how to reach senior water rights holders who might be sympathetic to downstream needs, and how we might purchase those waters but leave them in-stream. We explored strategies to divert waters to aquifer storage systems during times of excess, as stream flow during times of need. And we anxiously await the outcome of The Aransas Project lawsuit in hopes that it will mandate new opportunities for sharing waters upstream and downstream.
At the same time, ICF’s Whooping Crane Conservation Biologist Dr. Liz Smith was completing a major two-year study to determine how much more coastal habitat would be needed (especially with projected sea level rise) to support a goal of 1,000 cranes, including 250 pairs, on their wintering grounds around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The study, which also looked at the needs of 22 other vulnerable bird species in this region, will be used to prioritize opportunities for securing additional habitat along the Texas coast.
And just before my arrival, the 18th annual Port Aransas Whooping Crane Festival enjoyed resounding success, with more than 600 attendees from 28 states and 5 countries. The festival showcased the commitment of the local community to the future of Whooping Cranes in Texas, while participants from Wood Buffalo National Park in far northwest Canada reinforced the continental importance of the species.
Amidst this backdrop of optimism for the future of whoopers, water, and wetlands, came an event that many of us feared inevitable – another oil spill on the Texas coast. On March 22, an oil tanker collided with a petrochemical barge in Galveston Bay, spilling about 170,000 gallons of crude oil into the bay. As I write, we don’t fully understand how this story will play out. The collision is not as close to the crane wintering grounds as it could have been, the spill is not as large as the BP or Exxon Valdez spills, and, thanks to the quick action of the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies, it was quickly contained. But heavy tar soils beached on Matagorda Island adjacent to the crane wintering grounds and oil has drifted into the Gulf – where it may affect bay organisms that depend on Gulf waters to complete their life cycle, causing disruption to the food chain that sustains the only naturally-occurring flock of Whooping Cranes in the world. Just as concerning, the spill will impact countless seabirds, shorebirds, sea turtles, and other marine life, and harm the local fishing and tourism-based economy.
At times like these, our commitment to establishing a separate flock of Whooping Cranes in the eastern United States, where the pressures on land and water are somewhat less, feels all the more important. But the story in Texas is much bigger than Whooping Cranes. Whooping Cranes are a flagship for the many species of less-known and less-appreciated waterbirds, and for the way of life that people on the Gulf Coast have appreciated for decades. I look forward to the day when our photographs reveal nothing more than 1,000 Whooping Cranes on the Texas coast, feeding on abundant crabs among the lush, green marshes, with a backdrop of fishing boats and Whooper Watch cruises.