It has begun to snow in Grace, Idaho, and that means cranes and ultralight planes soon will migrate south for a third year to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.
But for the first time, the flight expected to begin next week will include four endangered whooping cranes.
It’s a test, like the one depicted in the 1996 movie “Fly Away Home,” to see if the whoopers will accompany sandhill cranes and two ultralight planes to winter wetlands 80 miles south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande.
The aim is eventually to establish a new flock of migratory whooping cranes in the southeastern United States as a hedge against extinction.
Idaho rancher-pilot Kent Clegg, who led flocks of sandhills with his ultralight in 1995 and 1996, says eight sandhill cranes and four whooping cranes have stayed with his plane during shorter training flights in recent weeks.
“The whoopers are a little slower in flight on takeoff, but they’re flying well,” Clegg says. “They’re using the (air stream) vortices on the wingtips just like the sandhills do.”
He says they will probably leave Grace on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, weather permitting, for a flight that should take seven to 10 days.
“Right now we’re not liking the weather. We had snow in the area here last night,” Clegg said Wednesday by phone from Idaho.
The whoopers were hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., and at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis., says Hans Stuart, Albuquerque-based spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The birds follow Clegg as a surrogate parent.
Just 371 whooping cranes are known to exist, and the only migratory flock - 180 whoopers - flies between Canada and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, says Tom Stehn, national whooping crane coordinator for Fish and Wildlife.
The majestic white birds also live in a nonmigratory flock in Florida and in captivity at zoos and other facilities in North America.
If they migrate successfully to New Mexico this time, it could be Clegg’s last migratory flight.
“The plan originally was just a one-attempt thing. That’s the way the permits were written. At this point, we don’t have plans to do it a second year out west,” Stehn says of whooper flights.
Clegg says he will still keep tabs on sandhills he escorted in years past.
“It’s been real rewarding to fly with the cranes and actually make migrations,” Clegg says.
The next phase would use ultralights to introduce a second migratory flock of whooping cranes at wetlands in Louisiana or Florida, but a decision hasn’t been made yet on the site, Stehn says.
“Hopefully you’d get a population of about 100 whooping cranes established. We’d try to aim for 25 nesting pairs in that flock,” Stehn says.
He says whoopers are dependent on salt marshes for survival, while their more plentiful gray sandhill cousins happily feed off farmlands.
The Marsh Island state wildlife area in Louisiana and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida meet salt-marsh criteria, he says.
In fact, he says, whoopers used to winter at both locations but were wiped out by hunters and other human encroachment along their flyways.
A second migratory population could help prevent whoopers’ extinction, Stehn says.
Right now, the only migratory flock lives along a 35-mile stretch of the Texas Gulf coast, potentially vulnerable to hurricanes, red tides, chemical spills and other problems, he says.
“If a catastrophic event occurred, it would affect almost all the whoopers,” Stehn says.
A second population would be less likely decimated by any single disaster, he says.
Stehn, optimistic about Clegg’s flight, says he’s more worried about the whoopers’ chances once they arrive at Bosque del Apache, where nearly 150,000 birds gather at the peak wintering season. Refuge officials have said those include nearly 20,000 sandhills, 75,000 ducks and 50,000 geese plus a few thousand others.
“The scariest thing to me is getting the whoopers to incorporate with the wild flocks,” Stehn says. “If they incorporate with the other flocks, they have a much better chance in the wild.”
If they don’t, they’re vulnerable to predators, particularly coyotes.
During past flights south, Clegg found the sandhills also faced attacks by golden eagles.
This year a second chase plane will accompany the flock to make sure the eagles don’t claim more victims, Stuart says. He says the chase pilot is authorized to shoot “cracker shells,” like firecrackers, to scare off eagles.