Photo: Kristen Ortweth-Jewell

The endangered whooping crane, a species that has dangled on the brink of extinction before, is facing new troubles in Texas as the drought continues.

2011 marked Texas’s driest and second-hottest year on record. With nearly 98 percent of the state in severe drought, people and wildlife across the Lone Star State are suffering. Whooping cranes are no exception.

The majestic, snow-white whooping crane is a North American treasure. About five feet in height, the whooping crane is the tallest bird on the continent. In the twentieth-century, DDT decimated their numbers, bringing the count of wild whoopers to just 15 birds. The numbers have since rebounded, but the estimated 300 whooping cranes that make up the Texas flock are the only wild, natural population we have.

“We’re in the midst of a drought compounded by the presence of red tide,” says Dan Alonso, manager of Texas’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is an over-wintering ground for the cranes.

Lack of freshwater has made the waters too salty for crane dietary staples like blue crab and wolf berries, as well as boosting toxic red tide. With nothing to eat, surviving the winter will be a challenge and malnourished cranes may not have the energy and resources to return to their breeding grounds, Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park.

Water for whooping cranes is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2010 by The Aransas Project against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Project pointed to water management during a 2009 drought—a winter in which 23 cranes died—as causing harm to a federally-recognized endangered species. The two-week trial concluded in December, and the outcome could force the commission to consider cranes in water management.

For now, the Aransas refuge is taking its own steps to save freshwater, including collecting rainwater. Alonso noted that about 9,000 acres of proscribed burns are planned to open habitat for the cranes. He also asked that visitors keep their distance from the birds, to prevent stressing the cranes further during these tough times.

Despite the drought, Alonso remains hopeful regarding the birds: “We do hope to break that record of 300 cranes.”

For more on whooping cranes, check out Justin Nobel's story on whooping cranes in Florida and Alisa Opar's piece on efforts to bring whoopers back in Louisiana.

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