The Biden administration has hatched secret plans to weaken protections for white cranes, and documents obtained through an open records request show officials ‘appear to have deliberately misled the public,’ environmental group says .
The documents show that the US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to propose changing the status of the only natural herd from threatened to threatened, the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release linked to some of the articles.
“The whooping cranes still have a long way to go on their road to recovery, but with all the protections of the Endangered Species Act, they were at least heading in the right direction. Weakening the protections at this point would be heartbreaking and likely undo much of the progress they’ve made so far,” Stephanie Kurose, senior policy specialist at the center, said in an email on Tuesday.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether a proposal to “decommission” the crane would be appropriate but has not made such a proposal, the agency said in a statement sent to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Whoopers are the rarest cranes in the world. There are about 500 birds in the natural flock, which had fallen to 15 in 1941. There are also a total of about 150 in two flocks that authorities are trying to establish should disease or other disaster strike the flock d origin, and about 145 in captivity, according to the International Crane Foundation.
Current herds are classified as “experimental” and are treated as threatened to allow more flexibility in their management.
The federal agency said it announced in May 2021 that it was reviewing the status of the bird and that the possibility of a downgrading proposal was made public in fall 2021.
“Upgrading to threatened status would not weaken necessary and appropriate protections” under the Endangered Species Act, the statement said.
The release of the fall list in December prompted the center to make its request for public records, Kurose said. The documents he received included a draft press release titled “North America’s Tallest Bird on the Road to Recovery / Decades of Conservation Efforts Lead to Proposed Whooping Crane Change from endangered to threatened”.
Kurose said reclassifying the flock that migrates between Texas and Canada as endangered would remove protections from pesticide damage. It would also limit protections against collisions with transmission lines or other structures in key bird migration corridors, she said in an email.
The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, measuring up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) from black feet to a featherless black mask and red cap. Their feathers are white except for the black tips of the wings which can span almost 2.1 meters.
Biologists estimate that more than 10,000 lived in North America before habitat loss and overhunting nearly killed them.
The current total of about 800 is up about 250 from 2010, when authorities completed plans to release the juveniles in Louisiana the following year. The Louisiana herd now numbers about 70. About 80 are part of the other “experimental” herd, trained with ultralight aircraft to migrate between Wisconsin and Florida.
The Fish and Wildlife statement says any proposed whooping crane reclassifications would be announced in the Federal Register with time for public comment, which would be factored into any final decision.
However, the Center for Biological Diversity said a March 8, 2021 memo said a committee had decided to recommend the change, and emails from July 2021 show the crane was intentionally omitted from a list of proposed changes two months later.
The delay was prompted “out of concern that the decision would trigger intense public scrutiny and backlash”, the organization said.
“Even though the Service has nearly completed a rule proposal to downgrade Whooping Crane and has developed a public outreach plan to message the proposal, the agency continues to deny that it seriously considered weakening the protections,” according to the group.