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Biden administration considers removing whooping cranes from endangered species list

Three whooping cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas in 2008.
Klaus Nigge
/
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Whooping cranes make their way from Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas every winter.

The rare migratory whooping crane, an iconic animal of the Texas Gulf Coast, may see some of its endangered species protections removed under a review proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But environmental groups say it’s far too early to change the bird’s conservation status.

Around 500 cranes currently make their way from Canada to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas every winter. This is the only wild migratory population of the cranes, the tallest and rarest birds in North America.

While the population’s numbers may seem small, the whooping crane is a conservation success story. At they're lowest point, only 15 cranes migrated from Canada to the Gulf Coast in 1941. Cranes from a separate, reintroduced flock, have also begun nesting in Texas for the first time in more than 100 years.

But that good news is not enough to warrant loosening the bird's federal protections, some conservationists say.

In a letter sent Monday to the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Biological Diversity says the migratory whooping crane population has not met the benchmarks needed to consider removing it from the endangered species list.

“The recovery plan for the Whooping Crane states that downlisting to threatened status is not warranted until a second migratory population reaches over 120 individuals for a decade,” the letter reads. Otherwise, it says, the Texas crane population needs to reach over 1,000 birds before “downlisting” is considered.

The letter also expresses concern over the impact that climate change and rising sea levels will have on the crane’s coastal habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the “downlisting” of the cranes is not a done deal. In its proposal to reassess the bird’s status, the agency said it “may propose to downlist or delist the species, unless the FWS determines no change in its status is warranted.”

The reassessment was announced ahead of what might be a challenging winter for the cranes.

Earlier this fall, Wade Harrell, the agency's whooping crane coordinator at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, said an anticipated warm and dry winter may require officials to use water wells to supply the cranes with fresh water.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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