Whooping Cranes near Rockport, Texas.© Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership/www.bringbackthecranes.org
Today, the population numbers 217 whooping cranes, according to federal wildlife biologists. The birds are easy enough to track, as they winter in the swampy bottomlands near Rockport, Texas, just as their ancestors did for thousands of years. Luckily for the whooping cranes, the land—long recognized as a cradle of Gulf Coast biodiversity—is now administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, partly for the birds’ protection.
“You see the horizon, the cranes in the marsh, the oak trees in the distance. That’s the way it’s looked for hundreds and hundreds of years,” says Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s part of a natural system and we want to keep it that way if at all possible.” Stehn has devoted his career to the whooping crane’s recovery since 1982 when the Schenectady, N.Y., native was transferred to Aransas.
While the whooping crane’s “recovery” is a testament to American restraint and a still-evolving conservation ethic, it is still a federally listed endangered species, and its population is not yet stable, warns Stehn. The birds are still threatened, by hunters and predators, as they make their long migration. But thanks to lots of hard work and constant vigilance on the part of biologists, every year recently has seen a net gain of birds back in Texas for the winter. And by now, Stehn considers most of them old friends.