A noble bird, a regrettable choice

The whooping crane is not only the tallest and grandest bird of North America but one of the continent’s most critically endangered species. For more than a half-century, a federally-funded research center in Maryland has been at the heart of efforts to better understand, breed and repopulate the birds in the wild. It has been a small but extraordinary effort involving generations of researchers nurturing and studying captive birds — and it can claim a measure of success given that the species thought to once number fewer than two dozen in the 1940s can be counted in the hundreds today.

Yet for a mere $1.5 million — the price of no more than a football field-long section of President Donald Trump’s proposed 1,000-mile, $21.6 billion border wall — the Trump administration has decided that the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel should no longer be raising the endangered species. Funding for the small program ended in September at the end of the federal fiscal year, the U.S. Geological Survey having decided its essential captive breeding mission had been fulfilled and that the remaining birds should be shuffled off to other research outposts.

It’s entirely possible that other federal research facilities will carry on with whooping crane revival efforts just fine — there are zoos that can do this kind of breeding and release work, too — but it’s no certainty, particularly when there’s no funding attached. The species’ demise may no longer be imminent, but its future is not guaranteed either given how little breeding takes place by birds not born and raised in the wild. There are believed to be fewer than 500 cranes in the wild divided among four flocks and perhaps 160 more in captivity. Many are currently in their fall migration to warmer climes, primarily the Texas Gulf Coast. They are still classified as an endangered species, a status they’ve held since the 1960s. The latest challenge? Climate change is thought to be throwing off their migration schedule from Canada.

It’s a small decision in the context of an enormous federal budget that is counted in the trillions of dollars and not likely to land especially high on the ever-expanding list of Trump administration insults to the environment (the abandonment of the Paris treaty on climate being a top contender, along with the rapid dismantlement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). But it looms large when one considers how minuscule the potential financial benefit. That $1.5 million is to the $19 trillion national debt as a tear drop is to a backyard swimming pool. The administration would save a lot more by forcing cabinet secretaries to fly commercial. Most Americans have never seen a whooping crane, which is a shame given their extraordinary stature (up to 5 feet tall), their loud call and magnificent white plumage.

Yet it is people of North America who ought to be held responsible for the species’ potential demise. Whooping cranes didn’t just one day agree to a mutual suicide pact; their near-extinction was driven by unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. At Patuxent, wildlife biologists and a team of volunteers have done yeoman’s work, whether it meant flying ultra-light aircraft to guide migration (a technique since abandoned) or dressing in costume and feeding the young by puppet so chicks wouldn’t grow dangerously accustomed to human interaction.

Why save an endangered species? Extinctions often occur naturally. While that’s true, human activity has tipped the scales precipitously. Who are we to ignore the “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value” of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants — as the Endangered Species Act of 1973 rightly points out? How many might hold a cure for cancer? How many represent a lynch pin in the ecosystem? How many inspire artists? Ensure biodiversity? Or simply delight human visitors? Who are we to play God with whole species of organisms?

The whooping crane is far from the only North American species whose chances of survival seem diminished under the leadership of a president who wants to shrink national monuments and expand offshore drilling and who regards environmental regulations with contempt. But for many in Maryland, their imminent departure from our state, even if they spent their entire lives held in captivity, represents a loss. But far worse the loss if this sudden departure signals the beginning of the end for serious efforts to preserve, protect and expand the whooping crane population across the continent.

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°