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New whooping crane coordinator changes to controversial counting method

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 26, 2013 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Jan. 26, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.

New whooping crane coordinator Wade Harrell takes a break from looking through his binoculars off a viewing deck at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. One of Harrell's roles is to help encourage the recovery of the whooping crane population.

Brief history

Whooping cranes have been wintering in their natural habitat on the coast of South Texas for hundreds of years. The tall birds were almost extinct when the last naturally migrating flock was discovered at what became the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in the 1940s. Only 15 of the majestic birds were left when they were discovered in 1941 in the marshes on the South Texas coast. Since then, they have been slow to increase, but through years of effort, the flock has steadily grown.

AUSTWELL - Wade Harrell still remembers the moment he walked up to the deck at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and got his first look at whooping cranes as a kid.

It was dazzling, seeing the snowy white birds winging through the marsh, he said.

He had no way of knowing then that one day he'd be responsible for the majestic white birds. When he got the job as whooping crane coordinator, it was like coming home.

"Aransas is my home refuge. I remember climbing up there and seeing my first whooper when I was in school. I was so excited," he said.

Now, he is the guy charged with overseeing efforts to ensure the survival of the endangered species - the last known naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in North America.

Harrell became whooping crane coordinator in September 2012. He was taking the reins from Tom Stehn, who had been watching over the cranes for the past 29 years.

When Harrell came to the job, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found itself embroiled in a messy lawsuit between the Aransas Project and the state of Texas over water use and the whoopers.

The federal agency usually prefers to stay apolitical and to keep out of the fray, he said.

And at the center, Harrell was trying to make sure his mission - to help the whooping crane flock continue to grow - didn't get overshadowed while he settled in to learn about his position.

"That's the exciting thing about this job - there's always something to learn," he said.

Harrell grew up in Portland. His mother was a teacher who encouraged an appreciation of nature, and Harrell spent hours fishing and hunting with his father.

He developed a passion for the outdoors, and by high school, he knew he wanted to go into wildlife management. He wanted a job where he could stay outside and enjoy nature.

Harrell attended Texas A&M University-Kingsville for his undergraduate work and went to Oklahoma State University for his graduate and doctoral work. He had gone to school with the idea of studying wildlife management, but he found himself drawn to wildlife habitats.

During these years, he worked on projects looking at the ecology of Oklahoma grasslands and worked as an intern on Matagorda Island along the Texas coast.

The Attwater's prairie chicken was just being reintroduced when he came to the Nature Conservancy in Victoria.

Harrell worked for years trying to get the chickens a new foothold in their new environment, leaving to take a job in Austin as coordinator of state and private lands. This was an extension of his job working with the chickens, which had required working things out with farmers and ranchers to persuade them to let the bird habitats be put on their lands.

"If you're going to manage wildlife, you can help the indigenous species, but in the end, you have to preserve the habitat itself, or you won't have a place for them to live," he said.

He and his wife and two sons packed up their things, sold their house and moved to Austin in 2009, thinking they'd left Victoria behind. But then, two years later, he got a chance to return as whooping crane recovery coordinator.

When Stehn retired, it seemed like he knew everything about whooping cranes, Harrell said. It was daunting stepping into his shoes, especially since the endangered birds were at the center of a legal struggle that had simmered for years but was coming to a boil as it rolled into court.

"I told them from the get-go that I'm not the whooping crane expert by any means, that Tom is," he said.

While he didn't have Stehn's years of expertise to bring to the table, he had spent his career working with different groups and getting those groups to work together on behalf of endangered species. As the whooping crane flock continues to grow, the key will be getting groups with different interests to work together to support that growth, Harrell said.

He has also been charged with making changes in how data is collected on the cranes.

The lawsuit was heard by U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack early last year, and a decision is expected sometime in the coming months, said James Murphy, executive manager of water resources and utility operations with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, or GBRA.

It started in winter 2008, during a dry season when drought was just beginning to grip the state. Stehn recorded that 23 whoopers died during the course of the season.

The Aransas Project, an environmental coalition, filed a lawsuit against the state and the GBRA, claiming it had failed to provide enough water to the state for the whooping cranes to survive the toughened conditions of the drought.

As the lawsuit moved forward, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge were in the middle the of legal wrangling they were trying to avoid.

Stehn's method of counting the whooping cranes - he had conducted his census the same way since he took the position - was examined.

Stehn retired early in 2012, and Harrell was selected to be the new whooping crane coordinator in September. Stehn counted the birds as they flew 200 feet above the stretch of 33 miles of land that comprises the main habitat for the whoopers' winter grounds.

When Harrell took over, he began a new system designed to gather an estimate of the size of the flock instead of a hard number. Harrell has conducted flights collecting data, just as Stehn did, but he hasn't released any information about the size of the flock.

The information gathered in his surveys will be analyzed by a group of biologists in Albuquerque, N.M., who specialize in surveys, statistics and population estimates.

Harrell has submitted the data and expects to release a population estimate by the end of January or the beginning of February, he said.

"We know we can't count every bird every day we're out there, so we use standard wildlife techniques to estimate," Harrell said. "It's an approach used by those in the wildlife community, and it's a protocol being established so the count will be the same no matter who is doing it."

As the flock has grown, getting a reliable count has become more challenging, Harrell said.

Harrell acknowledged he can't have the intimate knowledge of the birds and their habits the way his predecessor did, making the changes in how the birds are counted a sensible move.

"We're trying to put out information that is as consistent as possible," Harrell said.

He is also overseeing other ways of studying the birds, namely working on a program that has been tagging the birds so they can be tracked by satellite. The small device, fastened onto the bird's leg just above the knee, tracks the bird so officials will be able to see where the bird spends its time and if the individual birds are alive or dead.

He is also focused on making sure people pay more attention to the needs of the birds than to the lawsuits and politics playing out around the flock.

When Harrell took over, he made sure his office was cooperative with the litigation.

"There's always politics in wildlife," he said. "It's a normal issue, particularly with endangered species."

Ever since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, any creature on the list might be pulled in as part of a lawsuit, he said.

"The key is to get out of that conflict and bring people back to the primary target of what the act was supposed to do: getting these species off the endangered species list," he said.

Harrell's dream is to continue helping the flock's numbers swell so the birds will be able to have a solid foothold in the world.

Harrell still remembers his own awe at seeing the whooping cranes as a boy. He is determined to preserve that moment of wonder.

A few weeks ago, Harrell and his wife took their sons, 8 and 10, to the refuge. The boys saw their first whooping crane. He watched them look at the beautiful bird, taking in the awe on their faces, and realized the work he is now a part of will help people sustain that giddy delight in the creatures for generations to come.

"The look I saw on their faces when they saw those birds - 6-feet-tall with red combs standing in a marsh - it was something else," he said. "It was a stunning sight."

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