Big, bold, and majestic, the whooping crane has been closer to the brink of extinction than almost any American animal and, miraculously, survived (the droves of ornithologists, conservationists, volunteers, and even hunters provided the “miracle” of its survival). Droves of hunters mowed down the whooping crane in the 1800s and early 1900s and, along with a loss of habitat (marsh lands across the central US), only 23 whooping cranes remained in 1941.
Standing over five feet tall, and with a wingspan over seven feet, the whooping crane is hard to miss. Its distinctive call can carry for miles and individuals have been tracked for decades, including one male that lived over 26 years.
Restoring the whooping crane to a thriving population took some time…and a lot of trial-and-error. Despite the best efforts of conservationists, the whooping crane population only increased by approximately one bird a year from the 1950s to the late 1970s.
Real results didn’t come to fruition until ornithologists tried some unorthodox methods of jumpstarting the population, including donning whooping crane outfits, leading flocks of flying whooping cranes in ultralight aircraft, and encouraging their nesting with sandhill cranes to learn proper “crane-ness”.
Initially, conservation efforts utilizing the typical catch-and-release method of identifying and tracking individual birds in the wild, by simply photographing, measuring, and then banding the leg of the whooping crane. However, there is an inherent danger in capturing a five-foot tall bird weighing nearly twenty pounds, not only for the researchers, but for the bird itself. Because of the stress and danger of banding, voiceprint analysis became the preferred method of identifying and tracking individuals.
Humans are by far the whooping crane’s most dangerous threat, but several species are known to prey on the crane’s nest, including black bears, wolves, red foxes, and even mountain lions. When a nest is threatened, whooping cranes do not back down, and have been seen frightening away predators as large as wolves. The most dangerous predator of whooping cranes is actually the bobcat, which uses stealth to snatch chicks from the crane’s nest. Because of this, bobcat populations near whooping crane nesting grounds are frequently moved to ensure the safety of juveniles.
Through these extreme conservation efforts, that number is up to approximately 800 cranes (including both those in the wild and in captivity).
Midwestern wildlife may be plentiful, but there are a handful of native and migratory species that state laws guard with extreme measures, largely because they totter at the brink of extinction: among these, penalties involving the whooping crane lean towards severe.
Categorized “endangered” under the criteria established by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the whooping crane is in danger of extinction throughout most or all of its native range. Each state, including Indiana, has its own version of the ESA, but being “endangered” at the state-level typically refers to extinction in a localized range. The whooping crane is endangered everywhere. In either case, penalties are stiff. These animals, however, are both federally and locally endangered, so injuring, killing, or simply harassing them would be like winning the lottery in Hell.
Penalties for killing, injuring, or simply harassing a whooping crane are stiff, and considered a federal crime, with a fine of up to $250,000 and six months in prison. In 2016, a Texas hunter shot and killed a whooping crane, paid a $25,000 fine and had his gun ownership rights suspended for five years (subsequently he decided to keep his guns anyway and was tossed in jail for a year to reconsider).