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Two whooping cranes glide during their approximately 90-day migration to Florida in 2015. Operation Migration, which has helped restore the whooping crane population in the eastern United States, says it is calling it quits at the end of the year.

After increased regulation of its whooping crane conservation practices, Canada-based nonprofit Operation Migration is closing its doors.

The nonprofit’s efforts as part of the crane restoration group Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership are credited with bringing the whooping crane back to the eastern United States, where it became extinct in the early 1940s. Only 15 whooping cranes remained in the western United States.

The bird’s now climbing numbers have encouraged the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to take a new approach to whooping crane conservation. But the new rules were too restrictive to Operation Migration and it is shutting down at the end of 2018, said CEO Joe Duff.

The eastern migration population of cranes that Operation Migration nurtured in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Juneau County now has over 100 members, said Wade Harrell, Fish & Wildlife Service whooping crane recovery coordinator. The number is encouraging but the flock is struggling to raise wild chicks and changes need to be made, he said.

Changes included cutting Operation Migration’s plane-led migration training for baby birds — which Harrell said jumpstarted the cranes’ reintroduction to the wild — and shifting raising of the chicks from human caregivers to captive adult cranes.

The changes may help the cranes learn natural rearing abilities, thus reducing chick mortality rates, Harrell said.

After trying to adjust to the new rules, Operation Migration has decided that they are too restrictive to continue, Duff said.

“We can’t justify taking funding from our supporters to do nothing,” he said. “At this point we’ve lost faith in what we can do to make (the reintroduction project) successful.”

Crane plane

An Operation Migration ultralight aircraft leads young cranes on their migration journey to Florida in 2014. The ultralight-lead migration project ended in 2016 after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service began shifting to a more natural reintroduction model.

The new restrictions have had a negative affect on the nonprofit’s capacity to reintroduce chicks to the wild, Duff said, especially because captive cranes can’t raise as many chicks as a team of human caregivers can, which stunts chick numbers.

In 2016, Fish & Wildlife also drastically reduced the number of eggs that would be given to Operation Migration for rearing. Usually, the nonprofit would receive about 20 eggs a year to raise and reintroduce into the wild. Under the new egg allocation rules, it gets 10 eggs. With fewer eggs, Operation Migration doesn’t feel it could provide the flock with enough chicks, Duff said.

Flocks cared for by other organizations are still allowed to use human caregivers, Duff said, adding that it seems like the eastern migration population is being neglected by Fish & Wildlife because the cranes are having trouble raising wild chicks.

“It appears to us that Fish & Wildlife Services have lost faith in us and the operation, and are letting it taper off,” he said.

But Harrell said the flock needs to focus on the unique challenges posed by their environment and circumstances. With sturdy numbers, the eastern migration population needs to focus on raising “natural” chicks, rather than pure chick numbers, so they can sustain themselves.

“The more that we can mimic mother nature in how we raise a chick in captivity, the more wild it will be when released,” he said.

As Operation Migration prepares to shut down, Duff said he hopes the waves caused by the nonprofit’s closure will “spark some interest” for the cranes’ cause, maybe inspiring supporters to take action.

“Our audience was really widespread,” he said. “Adventurers, pilots, birdists ... we turned a lot of people into conservationists so hopefully, they’ll continue to support the cranes.”

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership — which will be reduced to 18 members once Operation Migration closes at the end of the year — will continue to care for the eastern migration population, Harrell said. But it will miss a longtime partner and innovator that was indispensable in reintroducing the whooping crane to the U.S., he said.

“We really appreciate Operation Migration’s work and effort all these years. They’ve been a good partner,” Harrell said. “They were really key to getting the project off the ground and as the recovery coordinator, it really gladdens my heart to see the population do as well as it has. ... Losing a relationship and partner you’ve had for a long time, that’s tough.”

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