Saw today that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is recommending and end to the use of ultralights to lead eastern Whooping Cranes on migratory flights. The image of a group of young Whooping Cranes following an ultralight in a many-day “migration” is certainly well known both within the birding world, and for the public in general. They’ve been used for a number of years to lead first-of-year Whooping Cranes from their summer grounds in Wisconsin, to Florida.
The Fish & Wildlife Service notes that they want to get away from “artificial” methods of expanding the Whooping Crane range. They also note cost as an issue. As a Fed scientist, my best guess? It’s cost that’s the biggest factor here. I can at least sympathize with the thought of using only “natural” conservation methodologies, but c’mon. Would we have any Whooping Cranes moving between Wisconsin and Florida, without the use of ultralights and the program associated with it? What about other species? We’ve brought back California Condor from the brink of extinction by capturing all wild birds and initiating a captive-breeding program. Condors are now (rarely) starting to breed in the wild, but could they survive without “artificial” programs to support their population?
It ain’t easy being a Fed scientist in recent years! I’m sure Fish & Wildlife is in the same boat as many of us…long-term declining budgets, and the need to cut valuable research and conservation programs. It can certainly be expensive to implement and maintain programs such as those used for Whooping Cranes, California Condors, and other “iconic” species. There are definitely arguments that a focus on such “artificial” and expensive programs, efforts that benefit only one species, are not the most efficient use of ever-declining conservation and research dollars.
On the other hand, the public in general isn’t going to pay much attention to conservation efforts for a rare forb or insect. The value of programs for species such as Whooping Cranes and Condors goes beyond that individual species. When the general public sees stories in the mainstream press about young Whooping Cranes being led across the country by a person in an ultralight, it draws their interest. It makes them care. From that standpoint, it’s money well spent, as it opens up public discussion about conservation issues in general.
The cynical side of me looks at this story and sees that the total cost for the ultralight program has been around $20 million, with some of that coming from private funds. The cynical side of me looks at the Defense Department budget, hovering around $700 billion, and notes $20 million isn’t even enough to buy spare parts for their most ridiculously expensive fighter jet. The cynical side of me notes that for the cost of a handful of cruise missiles, we can continue to fund a program that may help save a species from disappearing from the face of the planet.
The cynical side of me gets a little depressed seeing stories like this…