Operation Whooping Crane – A Bit of History

by Pam Bates

In 1966, official concern over the vulnerability of the Whooping Crane population led to a joint agreement between Canadian Wildlife Service, (CWS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS) to collaborate on a captive-breeding program to conserve the species. To accomplish this, eggs would have to be removed from nests in the wild at Wood Buffalo National Park, (WBNP) and the man chosen and best suited for this task was wildlife biologist, Ernie Kuyt who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service.

The whooping crane nesting area, a maze of water and land. Click photo to enlarge.

For eleven years, Bob Isbister worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service and for three years worked the flights during the whooping crane egg collection. Following is a memory of Bob’s during the egg collection at WBNP and working with Ernie Kuyt.

Friends of the Wild Whoopers thanks Bob for allowing us to share his memories and photos by USFWS and National Geographic.

Operation Whooping Crane by Bob Isbister

I worked for CWS for 11 years (1967 to 1978) as Wildlife Technician in the Surveys and Enforcement section (we rarely engaged in enforcement). I then left to pursue my ambition to go to university, graduating in 1981 with a Commerce Degree and have spent the ensuing years in the field of Economic Development.

206 Bird Dog Plane

My job in the bird dog plane was to record the reaction of the adult whooping cranes during the whooping crane egg pick up. How far they flew away etc. They all stayed within a few hundred yards, hence the importance of Ernie’s weekly, then daily flights to the nesting grounds. For the first couple of years, I had to take a “tourist” with me, either a scientist and once a well known National Geographic photographer.

The late Ernie Kuyt and the pilot had mastered locating most of the nests. Ernie conducted several pre-pick up flights to monitor egg laying. The plan was to pick up the eggs late in the incubation period to minimize the chance of the adults abandoning the nest.

The daily preflight briefing to learn the exact nest locations and the order in which they will be visited. Click on photo to enlarge.
The helicopter flying low over the whooping crane nesting grounds in search of nests containing eggs. You can see the helicopter in the lower right quadrant. Click on photo to enlarge.

Now this wasn’t easy flying, as we had to fly “orbits” while the chopper was on the ground for the whooping crane egg pick up. With about 14 nests done in 2 days, this represents a lot of turning, often made worse by turbulence. Luckily, I have pretty much an iron gut for this, but these poor guys invariably got sick and didn’t always hit the bag.

Operation Whooping Crane
That is me on the float on the 206, feeling mighty green under the gills. Pit stop at four mile lake south of Fort Smith. The egg pick up was done in two stages so as not to imperil all the eggs at once in the event of a chopper failure. This was the second year of the pickup operation (1968) and everyone was hyper vigilant. Click on photo to enlarge.

I remember lying down on the dock thinking “no way in hell I’m going back up in the afternoon”. But after a few minutes and the pilots call to “lets go to town and get some bacon and eggs, away I went, brand new again.

A sock and a stick

There is cute story about the officials designing a special box to help Ernie carry the whooping crane eggs from the nest to the helicopter. Upon seeing this ‘special’ box, Ernie said “Hell I’m not going to carry that thing in the marsh I’ve got a wool sock which is way better!” So he brought an extra woolen sock and proceeded to carry the eggs out, one by one. It was quite the sight seeing Ernie with the sock, egg inside in one hand and a stick for trudging back through the marsh in the other hand.

Ernie Kuyt approaching a nest (located in upper right) as helicopter waits. Click on photo to enlarge.
Ernie Kuyt, Canadian Wildlife Service, carries a whooping crane egg in a sock to a waiting helicopter at Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada. Click on photo to enlarge.

Traveling in style and the press

Eggs flying in style thanks to the Goverment of Canada to Laurel, Maryland. From L to R, Ray Erickson, Director Patuxent Research Centre and Glen Smart Asst Director. Click on photo to enlarge.
This operation was a big deal and attracted the press at every fuel stop. At the time the Whooping Cranes were in big trouble with only about 40 still alive. Click on photo to enlarge.

Overall, a very successful international project. Today there are an estimated 506 Whooping Cranes in the Aransas Wood Buffalo population.

Four Mile Lake

Four Mile Lake, just a few miles SE of Fort Smith, NWT. Click photo to enlarge.

The last memory and comment is about Four Mile Lake; it is about 1 mile long and maybe 400 yards wide, oriented NNW by SSE. There was marker buoy at both ends of the lake about 300 yards before the end. If you weren’t airborne by then it was abort time. Theoretically that is!

One afternoon we took off to the south in the freshly fueled 206 heading south. We were still on the water at the abort buoy, but undeterred the pilot pulled into the air; now I must say that those small black spruce that rimmed the lake never looked so tall. We cleared them and then the plane sunk to just above the muskeg where we coaxed more airspeed and altitude and away we went. I’ve never liked the 206 since!

 

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this historical article but Friends of the Wild Whoopers opposes egg collection from the nests of the wild whooping crane flock.

***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat. *****

Friends of the Wild Whoopers is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization.

fall migration
friendsofthewildwhoopers.org
                                                                   

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