Houston — The nearly extinct whooping crane may be short on numbers, but it appears long on political pull.
This is evident in the controversy over efforts to transfer its protection from federal to state hands.
Matagorda, a Texas Gulf Coast barrier island 120 miles southwest of Houston, is the crane's winter habitat. Ever since the United States Air Force abandoned it, Texas has been trying to take title to 19,000 acres of federal land there. It wants to combine the land with 20,000 acres of its own.
Largely on account of the cranes, the US Interior Department resisted the Texas effort until last year. Then, Interior Secretary James G. Watt switched the department's allegiance. He and Texas Gov. William P. Clements Jr. declared there were no obstacles left to the transfer of ownership.
But even before Mr. Clements hailed the transfer as a ''perfect example of President Reagan's New Federalism doctrine,'' a loose alliance of federal and state officials and environmentalists emerged. They are now working to protect the crane and its winter home from what US Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan has called ''an uncertain fate with the state of Texas.''
The opposition's sheer determination prompted Mr. Clements and the Interior Department to suggest a compromise under which Texas would manage the federal and state land by federal environmental standards, but no property would change hands. (The remaining 11,500 acres of Matagorda are owned by Dallas cattle rancher Toddie Lee Wynne, and were never in controversy.)
Texas' opponents are cautious about the compromise, which was presented at a congressional subcommittee hearing on wildlife May 26. They were not mobilized by questions about the state's ability to manage, but by concern over its conservation record.
Matagorda is 32 miles long and 3 miles wide at its widest point. It lies across 51/2 miles of bay from the 51,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. From October to April it is the home of the whooping crane, which flies 2,500 miles from a Canadian sanctuary to winter there. Among the island's other inhabitants are such endangered species as the Southern bald eagle, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, and three types of sea turtles.
San Jose, the barrier island immediately south of Matagorda, is owned by Perry Bass, a Fort Worth oilman. According to records of the Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston, Mr. Bass was cited in 1975 for 95 violations of federal law for erecting 3.82 miles of dams without permits on San Jose streams to gather fresh water for cattle. What the engineers called the largest unauthorized activity on the south Texas coast was said to affect adversely the ecosystem of some 32,000 acres. What alarms conservationists is the fact that Mr. Bass now is chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. This is the agency that would oversee management of Matagorda's federal land; it already controls the state's conservation property.
In April 1979, one month before the Legislature confirmed his appointment to the commission, Mr. Bass was cited again for building an unauthorized boat dock across the bay from San Jose.
During his first three years as commission chairman, Mr. Bass has, among other things, reversed commission decisions preventing construction of an industrial harbor on 71 acres of marshland. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department described this area as a valuable nursery ground for many species of fish. He has also stopped the purchase of land for a buffer between a wildlife area and a dam construction site. On his own, he approved oil and gas leases in four state parks, one wildlife area, and one recreation area, with little re-striction on directional drilling.
Ted Clark, wildlife division director of the Parks and Wildlife Department, says he sees no reason for Texas' poor image in conservation. On the contrary, he says, ''I think we have a very good record.''
Ted Eubanks, the Houston Audubon Society's vice-president for environmental affairs, and Sharron Stewart of the Texas Environmental Coalition, who is also a member of the Houston Audubon Society, say they would agree with that assertion if it were applied to the department's full-time civil servants. But, they note, the record of the commission - a six-member policymaking body appointed by the governor - is another matter.
Mr. Eubanks says commission appointments have traditionally been a ''political plum'' for ranchers and oilmen with so much land of their own that they fail to see how much wilderness is being lost. Also, he says, the commission pays too much attention to game wardens who seem to be interested in promoting public hunting and too little attention to environment-conscious staff members.
''We're on record as supporting the (US) Fish and Wildlife Service retaining the federal lands in the refuge system,'' says C. Eugene Knoder of the National Audubon Society. The reason, he says, is ''almost self-evident, because endangered-species legislation and appropriations are handled primarily at the federal level. Very few states have refuge systems. Usually they're more interested in public hunting.''
However, Mr. Clark contends that, with 1,100 staff members, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is best suited to managing Matagorda. US Fish and Wildlife personnel, Clark adds, ''are directed at refuges, and they do a fine job on those small enclaves. We're not at odds. It's just a matter of us doing those things we do best.'' In wildlife preservation, ''the federal government without the states is dead in the water,'' he says. ''They haven't got enough people to sneeze at it.''
The state's 1981 conceptual plan for managing all of Matagorda would change the island very little, Mr. Clark says. Fishing and hunting are already allowed, and a park would be built on the northern end, away from the cranes' nesting ground. There would be no private development or vehicles, and no causeway linking the mainland and island, which is accessible only by boat or aircraft.
Moreover, he adds, the state already owns the wetlands frequented by the cranes, and their number has been growing steadily.
But Mr. Eubanks predicts that ''as the (crane) population grows, it will have to take in surrounding areas,'' such as the federally owned uplands. That must be planned for, because ''the whooping crane is a species we could still lose very easily.''
The count of cranes, only found in North America, was up to 72 last winter from a low of 16 in 1938. Hunters, loss of wilderness to cropland, and Gulf storms had decimated their flocks.
Bringing them back is a slow process, Mr. Eubanks says, partly because a female crane lays two eggs each year, but raises only one bird. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been putting the unattended eggs under sandhill cranes in New Mexico. Officials hope to increase the whoopers' population and create two flocks in case the one wintering on Matagorda is harmed.
For Texas to manage the federal land, an environmental-impact statement and US General Services Administration approval of the Texas-US agreement are required. Those who oppose Texas' being the owner may not challenge its proposed management role in Matagorda, but there is a catch.
''One of the provisions that makes good sense is a reversion clause that could be triggered by public petition'' to allow return of the land to federal control if the state's performance were unsatisfactory, Mr. Knoder says. Mrs. Stewart and Mr. Eubanks support that position - and so did Perry Bass, at the May 26 hearing.