The Plight of Florida's Whooping Crane
By Bill Kearney
With the publishing of “Wild at Heart,” the very first issue of Ocean Drive established a precedent we still adhere to today: mix glamour and gloss with stories that inspire change.
In 1993, a novel wildlife experiment was unfolding in Central Florida. Whooping cranes, nearly extinct save for 250 birds in the Midwest, were reintroduced to Florida’s Kissimmee Prairie area west of Vero Beach. It was unknown at the time if the birds, which eat grains, crustaceans, and small fish, would survive. Researchers cloaked themselves to disguise their true form and fed the chicks via taxidermied crane heads so as to prevent human imprinting. Over the next 15 years, the Kissimmee flock reproduced, but at a rate that was too low to viably sustain the population. In 2008, the reintroduction program was halted, and today 18 birds survive, with efforts refocused on a newer migrating whooping crane population that currently winters at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Gulf Coast and nests in Wisconsin. Researchers rather miraculously train young cranes to migrate by following an ultralight aircraft south to Florida each fall. Once they make the trip, they remember the route for the rest of their lives.
Though the fate of the Kissimmee cranes was not exactly a success, the writer, Jim Loney, used the concept as a jumping-off point to address then-pending restoration efforts in Florida, specifically those to restore the Everglades water flow back to natural levels, instead of routing it into agricultural lands and sea-bound canals. The plan would reduce pollution and estuary salinity, benefiting marine life—and the industries that depend on it. Guess what: The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), as it came to be known, is still pending. To this day, the project, though underway, is incomplete, hamstrung in court battles and by the 2008 recession that undermined the state’s efforts to buy seemingly overpriced land from big sugar companies. As a result, the Everglades receives less water, and the Army Corps of Engineers must release Lake Okeechobee overflow—polluted with farm phosphorus—into estuaries north of Palm Beach, damaging Florida’s most important economic engine, the ocean.
photography by usfws (cranes)
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