Whooping Crane Winter Refuge Threatened

One of our favorite birding spots is the Gulf Coast region of Texas – we have visited there the last two winters. The long drought has not only parched crops and resulted in horrific wildfires, it as also threatened the winter habitat of the endangered Whooping Crane. It’s a classic western water rights fight with big oil on one side and environmentalists on the other.

From the species’ nadir of 16 adults in the early 1940s, the crane flock that annually migrates between Texas and Northwest Canada rebounded to a high of 270 in 2008. Then came the searing drought of last year, and the Guadalupe River that supplies vital freshwater flow to the cranes’ Aransas nesting grounds fell precipitously. With blue crabs and other marsh food in short supply because of high salinity levels, the crane population was weakened by malnutrition. Fifty-seven birds, nearly a quarter of the flock, died in 2008-09, 23 of them in Texas.

Due to Texas’ historic drought, the Guadalupe’s flow is down by more than 60 percent at Victoria, roughly 20 miles upstream from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the cranes’ winter range. In September the refuge’s marshes were three times saltier than normal. The birds migrate from Canada each year to spend the winter feeding on crabs and berries along the Texas coast. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 571 wild and captive whooping cranes in July 2010. The Aransas group makes up half that number and is the world’s last migrating flock that can sustain itself in the wild. The coastline from just east of the cranes’ refuge to the Louisiana border bristles with the world’s largest concentration of petrochemical and refining complexes, many of which rely on river water.

The Aransas Project, a conservation group, is pointing an accusing legal finger at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which grants permits for commercial usage of river water. The group filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month charging that the agency is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing the diversion of too much water from the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers that flow into the crane refuge. It seeks an injunction to stop TCEQ from approving water rights permits until a court oversees a habitat conservation plan for the cranes.

An association including owners of five petrochemical plants near the refuge, including Dow, DuPont (DD) and Lyondell Basell (LYB), several power plants, and a nearby steel mill, have sided with TCEQ to defend the allocation system, while some coastal towns and businesses that rely on healthy bays and estuaries support the environmentalists. A TCEQ spokesman disputed the charge, saying the effect of lowered water flows on the crane habitat “is far from certain.”

This is not a simple conflict between birds and big oil. There are residents upstream who need drinking water, and there are fishermen downstream whose livelihoods depend on healthy estuaries. Ecotourism provides an additional economic incentive to maintain the estuaries. The endangered status of the Whooping Cranes may be the legal tool used to save the marshes, but if the suit succeeds, they are unlikely to be the only beneficiaries of a change in water rights.

It’s obvious that the birds and their wetlands food chain depend on fresh water to survive. It would be a tragedy if the effort to save the whooping crane flock dried up along with the life-sustaining flow of Lone Star waterways.

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