Whooping cranes are, in many ways, a lot like us.
They mate for life. They maintain small, close-knit families. They go through a few years of aloofness and soul-searching between childhood and adulthood. And like the thousands of “winter Texans” who migrate to this stretch of the Gulf of Mexico every year, they like to spend the colder months surrounded by warm, salty air.
Humans, however, only seemed to begin to appreciate these similarities after pushing the birds to the brink of extinction.
More than a century of hunting and the widespread conversion of wetlands to farmland in the American Midwest meant that by the time World War II broke out there were fewer than 20 individuals left overwintering in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in this stretch of what is known as the Coastal Bend of Texas. Thanks to regulation and decades of “Give a Whoop” public education campaigns, the cranes’ numbers have since increased to more than 300.
As they continue to expand across this rural, sparsely populated stretch of coastline, locals and conservationists are hopeful that the iconic birds can encourage a rare, ecologically-friendly approach to coastal development in a time of mounting human and environmental pressure on coastlines around the world.
“They like the same things the whooping crane likes, including solitude and being able to get away, but as more people want that and come here it gets a little bit harder to find those areas,” says Elizabeth Smith, who leads the Corpus Christi-based Texas office of the International Crane Foundation (ICF).
“We’ve lost 50 percent of our wetlands along the coast, we can’t afford to lose any more,” she adds. “We’re at the crossroads, and I think a lot of people get that.”
Coastal systems in general “are at a pinch point right now,” says Jeffrey Wozniak, an ecosystem ecologist at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
Aransas County, which includes the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and most of the whooping crane wintering grounds, saw its population increase 10 percent between 2010 and 2017, twice the national average. Half the US population is projected to be living in coastal counties in 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects. As those populations grow they can cut through and overrun habitats critical to coastal wildlife.
“That brings lots of habitat fragmentation, a lot of habitat loss,” adds Dr. Wozniak. As the coastal bend follows that path, “if we [don’t] have the birds, if we don’t have ecology in general as part of that [development] plan, we’re not going to be in a good situation.”
It also exacerbates a number of environmental pressures that are conspiring to stifle the whooping crane resurgence. The birds have outgrown the ANWR and can now be found foraging during the winter on the neighboring peninsula and barrier islands. Some have even begun to venture into urban areas, locals say. This could harm their regrowth as a species, experts say. The more time cranes spend scanning for predators, or searching unfamiliar areas for food, the less time they spend feeding and nurturing their young.
So as they expand, conservationists in the coastal bend are working to secure as much secluded habitat for the birds to move into as possible. Groups such as the ICF and the Nature Conservancy are trying to buy land and give it to the state or federal government to protect, and they’re working with private landowners – many of whom own large ranches on the coast – to convince them to set aside portions of their land for conservation use only.
Bill Ball is one such landowner. When his real estate company bought the Falcon Point Ranch in 2005, he knew that one-third of the 6,000-acre ranch in Calhoun County was considered critical whooping crane habitat. With guidance from the Nature Conservancy and US Fish and Wildlife Service, his company set up four sanctuaries for cranes that cover roughly two-thirds of the ranch. Homes only take up one-thirtieth, and none are directly on the water.
“It’s one of the last areas in the United States where there’s a big, big amount of acreage being conserved, and we wanted to be part of that,” says Mr. Ball, a real estate developer in Austin.
“Part of the attraction for us is, within reason, people will be able to see whooping cranes and enjoy whooping cranes,” he adds. “The population is going to grow, and if people are going to take care of the resource they need to appreciate it and understand it.”
Making room for 1,000 cranes
There is enough protected land available now from the Nueces Bay, where Corpus Christi sits, to Galveston Bay about 200 miles north to support more than 1,000 whooping cranes. That would be a large enough wild population to reclassify the birds from endangered to threatened, a goal shared by every conservation group and state and federal agency in the region.
But as whooping cranes branch out into the surrounding wetlands, the landscape could change dramatically as the sea level rises and fresh water from rivers diminishes from drought and overuse upstream.
The more immediate problem is that the coastal bend struggles to get enough fresh water to keep its wetland habitats healthy.
“Figuring out how to maintain economic growth and protect the environment and have enough water for everybody, including the cranes, is a challenge for all of us,” says Allen Berger, chairman of the San Antonio Bay Partnership, a local conservation group for the bay that borders the Aransas refuge. “It would be [a more] difficult challenge without the cranes, because they are a marquee species that attract people’s attention.”
With climate change, the pressures of drought are not going away. Much of Texas is currently back in a state of drought. Warmer winters have allowed tropical black mangroves, which are so thick that cranes can’t walk through them to look for food, to move deeper into some coastal estuaries.
The slow-burning threat of sea level rise has conservationists fighting on two fronts. With three feet of sea level rise, the protected land that could support over 1,000 whooping cranes today would only support 465 cranes in 2100, according to Wade Harrell, the coordinator for whooping crane recovery at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. So habitat further inland needs to be protected today as well before it gets sold for development, he says.
“Uplands [today] are tomorrow’s wetlands,” says ICF's Dr. Smith. “Can we protect that land for one thousand cranes as soon as possible? Because it’s for sale.”
Building a legacy
A final wild card in this conservation effort is that there are still several fundamental questions about whooping cranes that researchers haven’t been able to answer. So as scientists rush to identify and secure new habitat for cranes, they are also learning new things about their diet, behavior, and lifestyles.
During the 2010 drought, for example, a nonmigratory flock of cranes in Louisiana flew over to some nearby rice fields and began feeding and nesting there.
“Being able to adapt potentially to different food sources” is going to be important for their continued growth, says Nicola Davis, an ecosystem scientist with the ICF. “Will they be able to feed off the rice fields and the crawfish [further east]? Or can they switch to some sort of mussel?”
And perhaps the biggest question of all: “We still don’t know what human influence means for them,” she adds. “As their population grows they’re going to have to go off the reservation, and we don’t know how that will affect them.”
As significant a challenge as it is, people like Ball also see it as an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy – and to offer an alternative to the intensive development that has occurred in other stretches of the US coastline.
He is helping some friends sell part of their ranch further down the coast so it can stay undeveloped. “These guys love the fact that part of their legacy will be selling a piece of property for preservation as opposed to development.”
“It’s not all about money,” he adds. “I don’t want to develop a property that has the bay as its major selling point without being beneficial to the bay.”