Environmentalists fight for whoopers' water

MORE ON WHOOPERS

• Whooping cranes mate for life.

• The trip between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Wood Buffalo National Park is 1,200 miles.

• Once a whooping crane has made the trip, it is able to return unguided.

• For more information on whooping cranes, click here.

For more whooping crane photos, see the Nov. 25 Your Life section.

The whoopers are back, but even as the famed birds settle in at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for what promises to be a mild winter, the legal controversy surrounding them lingers.

The whooping cranes have been at the center of a trial over the state's role in the death of 23 whooping cranes during the winters of 2008 and 2009.

The Aransas Project, an environmental coalition, contends that the state took too much water out of the Guadalupe River before it reached the feeding grounds of the refuge, hurting the blue crabs that whoopers feed on and causing the death of 23 birds.

The Aransas Project wants the state to put a water plan in place that will protect the natural habitat of the cranes.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, at the forefront for the state, maintains a binding plan will take water away from current users.

The trial was held before U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in January. Jack has not issued a ruling on the case and the parties were in settlement negotiations until a new report was issued by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

The report found fault in how cranes have been counted by the agency and the assumption that birds missing from their territories had died.

Last month, the state asked Jack to re-open the case to admit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife report as evidence.

"We think this is a show-stopper," said Bill West, general manager of the Guadalupe Blanco-River Authority.

The report calls into question the methodology used by Tom Stehn, the longtime whooping crane coordinator for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, who retired last year.

"The report basically undermines his whole testimony," West said.

While both parties are still waiting on a decision from the judge, West said Jack may have a one-day trial to consider the new evidence if she allows the report to be included.

Settlement negotiations ended in the face of the state's request and Jim Blackburn, the Houston-based environmental lawyer representing the Aransas Project, said that they are working to exclude the report from the case.

"There is certainly an interest on the part of the state in getting it in, but we don't think it changes anything," Blackburn said.

Blackburn said that the cranes are important because unhealthy cranes means an unhealthy bay, which can impact the entire area.

"The cranes are dependent on the blue crabs and the blue crabs are dependant on a healthy and functioning estuary," Blackburn said. "In many ways, the whooping cranes are the perfect species indicator for the health of the bay. If we keep the bays healthy, the whoopers will be fine."

Meanwhile, the birds at the center of the legal battle are still making their way down from Canada. This flock is the last known naturally migrating whooping crane flock in existence. The birds, who travel alone, in pairs or small groups, have been making the trek between the Wood-Buffalo National Park in Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for thousands of years.

About 35 percent of the flock that is tracked by GPS arrived last week, and birds have been spotted in Oklahoma, according to a release issued by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. More birds are expected to arrive as cold weather moves in. The rest of flock is expected to have arrived by late November.

While there were only about 15 birds left in the flock when it was discovered in 1941, the flock has swelled to about 300 birds, Wade Harrell, new whooping crane coordinator for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, said.

Last year, the birds had a hard winter due to the drought and were ranging farther from their traditional feeding grounds in and around the reserve to find food, but Harrell said this year should be an easier season for the cranes.

The wolfberries that the birds eat have grown in strong this year, and biologists found plenty of blue crabs that the cranes feed on in the marshes, according to a release issued by the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

The area is still drier than normal but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a wetter than average winter and spring, according to the release.

"I think right now we're in what we consider more normal conditions, so we hope the cranes are a bit more normal in their behavior," Harrell said.

Despite all of the controversy surrounding the critically endangered birds, Harrell noted that the flock has made impressive strides.

"The long-term outlook is very positive for the cranes," Harrell said "We're in a position where we've come from 15 cranes to almost 300 cranes in the Aransas-Wood-Buffalo flock. Over the past 70 years, there's been tremendous recovery. We've still got a long way to go, but it's been an incredible recovery."