Back from the Brink

Not every endangered species is doomed. Thanks to tough laws, dedicated researchers, and plenty of money and effort, success stories abound

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The whooping crane, like the black-footed ferret in the Great Plains and the California condor, is inching back from the precipice of extinction. In 1941 the species vied with the ivory-billed woodpecker for the title of North America’s most endangered bird. Only 21 whooping cranes were left in the wild, the population devastated by hunters, wetlands loss and fashion (their plumes topped ladies’ hats). Conservationists were eager to revive the species, but they didn’t know where to start: nobody knew exactly where migratory whooping cranes nested. Then, in 1954, firefighters found whooping cranes at the WoodBuffaloNational Park in the Northwest Territories in Canada. Recovery efforts for this migrating bird with a seven-foot wingspan now had a multinational twist. A Canadian-American team created a new migration route for the birds from Wisconsin to Florida (there is also a nonmigratory whooping crane population, in Florida) to supplement the cranes’ historic route from Canada to Texas, reasoning that bad weather or other problems along the single route could wipe out too many cranes.

By now, the whooping crane recovery program has used virtually every trick in the conservation biologists’ toolbox: captive breeding, intensive training of nestlings, international cooperation, partnerships between government and conservation groups, habitat conservation and great gobs of public and private money.

Last July, the population hit a milestone of 338 whooping cranes in the wild, including captive-bred birds that have now made the migration without a motorized escort. Though still endangered, the species has come a long way from its double-digit nadir. “If we can save the whooping crane,” she adds, “we can save all the other species.” The achievement, she adds, is “the wildlife equivalent of putting a man on the moon.”



Safe Harbors on PrivateLand
Status: Endangered Year listed: 1970
Security measure: Pecks at pine tree bark to release pitch, which oozes down the trunk and stymies snakes

In the early 1990s, while environmentalists and loggers in the Pacific Northwest battled over the northern spotted owl, sentiment was running high in the Southeast over the red-cockaded woodpecker (RCW). The medium- sized bird nests in mature longleaf pine forests, which have been heavily logged since the 19th century. After it was listed as endangered in 1970, some private landowners from the Carolinas to Mississippi deliberately cut longleaf pine trees to prevent the bird from squatting on their land. One driver’s personalized license plate read “I eat RCWs.”

The question of what to do with endangered species on private land had long vexed wildlife managers. Some property owners have opposed species conservation efforts because of concerns that they’ll have to restrict commercial activities if an endangered species is identified on their land. The conflict over the woodpecker inspired a new approach to the problem, a cooperative agreement called SafeHarbor: if landowners agreed to help protect and restore a listed species, the federal government would waive particular ESA restrictions.

The first signatory of the agreement to save the red-cockaded woodpecker, perhaps the most successful SafeHarbor arrangement in the program’s ten years, was the Pinehurst Resort (site of the 2005 U.S. Open) in North Carolina, which agreed to replant longleaf pines and log their private forest holdings near the resort with selective-cutting rather than clear-cutting. In return, U.S. wildlife officials agreed that Pinehurst and other landowners would not be subject to increased limits on development.

The SafeHarbor agreement, like other conservation measures, didn’t succeed on its own. Biologists fostered the regrowth of longleaf pines by burning competing undergrowth. And they constructed nest boxes and set them into trunks of smaller trees to serve as suitable nesting cavities until forests matured. Today, the red-cockaded woodpecker population is an estimated 15,000.


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