Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

6 years, 12 Whooping Cranes Shot by Rednecks

Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A young Whooping Crane in flight. As a young bird, it’s got a rusty wash on its head and spots on the wings, but even so…this is one BIG bird, and there’s really nothing like it. There’s certainly no bird that looks like this that can be legally shot in the U.S. Yet thanks to Homo redneckii, yet another Whooping Crane has fallen to a gunshot, the 12th in just 6 years. Photo from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I sometimes wonder if the human race is actually comprised of two species. On the one hand, you have Homo sapiens.  I see the wonderful folks around me….family, friends, and co-workers who 1) care about their fellow human beings, 2) care about the world around them, and 3) care about their children’s future.  On the other hand, you have another species, let’s call them “Homo redneckii“.  Homo redneckii have been QUITE active lately (particularly around early November of last year). Homo redneckii have a strong paranoid streak.  Instead of caring for their fellow human beings and participating in societal functions that ensure overall well-being of the species, Homo redneckii are all about…themselves.  Homo redneckii don’t believe in the greater good.  They don’t believe in social structures such as “government’, “law”, or even basic morality.  Homo redneckii don’t give a damn about their fellow man, and rebel against even something as simple as paying taxes to support social programs. Homo redneckii are insecure and jealous, and sneer at the “elite” educated Homo sapiens who have clearly done better at life than themselves.  Instead of working to better themselves, Homo redneckii will instead take the easy route and viciously try to bring others down to their level.  In summary, Homo redneckii believe they can do whatever they want, that the world around them exists simply for their own personal exploitation, and the well-being of future generations means NOTHING if it might require even the tiniest of sacrifices.

As a scientist, as somebody who cares about the environment, and as someone who cares about my son’s future, the activities of Homo redneckii are often hard to swallow. It even often intersects my “safe haven” of birds and birding, the place I usually go to escape the madness of the world around me.  Today was one of those days.  A bit of backstory…

On three occasions I’ve been to the Platte River in Nebraska in March for the amazing Sandhill Crane migration.  Hundreds of thousands of Cranes foraging in corn fields, flying overhead, roosting on sandbars by the evening…it’s an amazing sight, and that doesn’t even account for the many thousands of Snow Geese and other waterfowl that are also typically around at that time.  In all the times I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska and up here in South Dakota, it’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps, just once if you’re lucky, you’ll see a flash of white, and a bird that’s considerably bigger than all of the others.  It’s always in the back of your mind that perhaps you’ll be lucky enough to spot a migrating Whooping Crane.

Alas, I have yet to see a Whooping Crane, other than a captive bird.  There have been a few false alarms, such as the time a couple of years ago when I saw a small flock of Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. It was from a long distance, but just behind the Sandhill Cranes was a very large white bird with dark wing tips.  WHOOPING CRANE!  That’s what first flashed through my mind, until, alas, the birds got closer and it was clearly “just” an American White Pelican.   These kinds of misidentifications are common when out birding, where you’ll initially see a bird and believe it to be a certain species, only to note it’s a different species when you get a better look. What is quite clear though is that if I ever did come across a Whooping Crane, if I was anywhere within a few hundred yards, it would be quite easy to identify.

When you’re birding, and you initially misidentify a bird, it’s obviously no big deal.  When you have a gun in your hand, it IS a big deal.  One of the most accessed pages on my entire website is a page that helps to differentiate between Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Prairie Chickens.  Do a quick google search, and you’ll find out the reason why. There are a number of hunting forums where somebody asks how to tell the difference between the two species, so they don’t accidentally shoot the “wrong” bird.  It’s not just grouse and prairie chickens, it’s also quite obvious that hunters often have a hard time telling apart duck species or other game.  Given that there may be a legal hunting season for one species, but not for another, somewhat similar-looking species, there’s obviously the potential for a trigger-happy hunter to shoot the “wrong” bird.

Evidently, there have been 12 “trigger-happy misidentifications” over the last 6 years, where hunters have shot and killed endangered Whooping Cranes in the U.S. As of 2015, there were only about 400 wild Whooping Cranes in existence.  That’s up considerably from just 21 birds in the 1940s, but they are still obviously an endangered species, and losing ANY bird is a huge loss, much less having 12 shot by “mistake”.  The latest happened just a week ago, when an adult Whooping Crane was shot and killed in southern Indiana.   This bird was an adult female, one who had just laid an egg this summer and had it hatch.  The youngster later died, but the loss of a breeding female who was able to successfully mate and hatch an egg is a huge loss for Whooping Crane conservation efforts.

Let’s dispense with the bullshit though about “misidentification”. Let’s face it…there’s no mistaking a Whooping Crane, not if it’s within range of a shotgun or a rifle.  It’s the tallest bird in all of North America, and it’s a brilliant white bird.  The only other large, white bird with a body shape and structure anything close to a Whooping Crane would potentially be a Great Egret, but 1) even a Great Egret is much, much smaller than a Whooping Crane, 2) Whooping Cranes have obvious black wing tips that would be visible in flight, and 3) IT DOESN’T MATTER if you confuse a Whooping Crane with a Great Egret, because it’s not legal to shoot EITHER species.  I’ve lost count of how many hunter/hunting related “incidents” I’ve come across while out birding in South Dakota, incidents where I’ve personally witnessed (and reported) hunters shooting creatures they shouldn’t be shooting.  I’ve come across plenty of hunters who are anything BUT sportsmen, men (yes…always men) who love their guns, love to shoot things, and don’t seem to care what they shoot.  Given that it’s practically impossible to mistake a Whooping Crane for ANY legally hunted bird, I won’t give any benefit of the doubt to any of the 12 redneck hunters who shot and killed these 12 Whooping Cranes over the last 6 years.

It was a little over 3 years ago where a Whooping Crane was shot right here in South Dakota. Jeff Blachford, a 26-year old man from Miller, South Dakota, was apprehended and charged with the crime.  Blachford was fined a hefty $85,000…a welcome change from past incidents, because other hunters who have shot Whooping Cranes have sometimes escaped ANY sort of penalty. The last time a Whooping Crane was shot in Indiana, prior to this recent event? It was just back in 2009.  The hunter was identified and fined…ONE DOLLAR. Yes, a $1 fine for shooting one of the rarest birds in the world. It remains to be seen what happens in this latest incident.  It appears that it’s still under investigation, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve found the perpetrator yet. Given the outrage after the last Indiana “sportsman” got off so easily, one would hope that the punishment would better fit the crime, should the redneck be identified.

I worry that homo redneckiism is actually a contagious disease. When Blachford shot the Whooping Crane in South Dakota a few years ago, I blogged about it, and was immediately innundated with emails from angry Homo redneckii from the Miller area.  I’m not a religious man, but if I were? I’d pray for the poor folk around Miller, and other locations where Homo redneckiism has manifested. It’s spreading so quickly.  There are some truly nice folk in South Dakota, but as this last election showed, many are also remarkably susceptible to Homo redneckiism.  Hunting rights, paying taxes, (having a black president)…all issues that have proven to be triggers for homo redneckiism.  In the midst of this major national flare-up of the disease, here’s hoping that a vaccine is on the horizon.

Otherwise, massive, brilliantly white, unmistakable birds like the endangered Whooping Crane might not survive.



An end to ultralight-led Whooping Cranes

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…

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