The Louisiana Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program

The Louisiana Statewide Red-cockaded Woodpecker Safe Harbor Program

The Federally-endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) (RCW) is the only southeastern woodpecker to excavate its roost and nest cavities exclusively in live pine trees. The RCW is approximately the size of the northern cardinal. (Add link to Natural Heritage spp. Account here).  It is distinguished from other ladder-back woodpeckers by its large white cheek patch (auricular) and its cooperative breeding strategy.

The RCW has very narrow habitat requirements. It requires pines at least 60-years old (preferring 80-100-year old trees which are infected with red heart fungus). RCWs cannot persist in the long term without suitable cavity trees and adequate foraging habitat. Herein lays the crux for private landowners. They must retain a minimum stocking level of 3000 sq. ft. of pine basal area of trees 10 inches and greater diameter at breast height, on at least 75 ac. for each RCW family group on their property. These guidelines may pose a disincentive for most landowners to manage for the RCW. The solution? Safe Harbor.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) with its partner the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) finalized a programmatic safe harbor agreement for the state of Louisiana. LDWF received a permit from the USFWS on January 25, 2005 to administer this program. This permit allows LDWF to enroll non-Federal properties in the program by entering into Safe Harbor Management Agreements (SHMAs) with landowners.  The SHMA is the document that, once approved by LDWF, outlines a cooperating landowner’s baseline number of RCW groups, voluntary RCW management activities and timetables for their implementation.  In exchange for entering into a SHMA, landowners receive a Certificate of Inclusion which authorizes the incidental take of any RCW group or habitat that is above the landowner’s baseline responsibilities. 

The baseline number, or number of RCW groups present on the property at the time of enrollment, is determined by a survey completed by qualified personnel experienced in RCW surveys.  The baseline number of groups can be zero and is subject to approval by LDWF and the USFWS.  Upon signing their SHMA the landownervoluntarily agrees to manage for their baseline RCW groups and associated foraging habitat.  If, after entering into a SHMA, the number of RCW groups increases on the landowner's property due to their beneficial and voluntary management, they are not responsible for those above-baseline groups and may, if they choose, remove their cavity trees and associated foraging habitat. If a landowner chooses to exercise this option, they must give LDWF a 60-day written notice so that LDWF and/or the USFWS can give a consolidated and coordinated effort to capture the affected RCWs and translocate them to a recovery population. This shows LDWF's and USFWS's commitment to landowners’ management objectives and to the survival and recovery of this endangered species.

When signing their SHMA, landowners voluntarily agree to manage for the RCW, by choosing 1 or more of 5 management options, each of which provides a net conservation benefit to the RCW. These management options are: forest management, hardwood midstory control, prescribed fire, RCW population management and RCW cavity installation and maintenance.  LDWF understands that these management actions can be costly and helps landowners indentify cost-share programs that can provide financial assistance for RCW management activities.  Please visit the links at the end of this article to explore the many opportunities for financial assistance in RCW habitat restoration and management. 

The management strategies associated with the RCW Safe Harbor Program benefit a host of other wildlife species associated with mature pine habitat, including: bobwhite quail, eastern wild turkey, Louisiana pine snake and gopher tortoise (just to name a few).  RCW management also promotes healthy mature pine stands, which have exceptional value in the pole and saw timber market.  With careful planning, RCW management and profitable timber harvest can be compatible uses of a forested tract.  RCW management activities also result in an open understory which may allow for further economical benefit in pine straw raking. 

The Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Program exemplifies LDWF's commitment to providing incentives for endangered species management on private lands.  We are committed to assisting landowners in developing a strategy for RCW management on their land that balances their forest management objectives.

For detailed information on the Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Program and the Louisiana Landowner Incentive Program or to receive a copy of the Louisiana Statewide RCW Safe Harbor Agreement by mail, contact Eric Baka, RCW Safe Harbor Coordinator at (318) 487-5890 or via email at ebaka@wlf.la.gov.


Current cost-share programs available for management activities which benefit the RCW are as follows:

Forest Management: 

Hardwood removal: 

Prescribed burning: 

There are also cost-share programs which provide financial and technical assistance for general wildlife habitat restoration and/or longleaf pine restoration may be utilized for RCW habitat restoration:


Please visit the links below for further information:

RCW and Longleaf Pine Info:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Clemson Field Office  RCW Information.

All About Birds  Cornell’s RCW Summary

http://library.fws.gov/Pubs4/redcockadedwp02.pdf  USFWS RCW Brochure.

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem  The Longleaf Alliance.

http://www.conservationforestry.org/Documents/Handbook_Gopher_Tortoise.pdf  “The Gopher Tortoise Handbook” contains much information on the longleaf pine ecosystem.

Contact Us | Louisiana NRCS  For information on WHIP and EQIP contact this local Alexandria NRCS Office.

Whooping Cranes Return Celebrated at White Lake W.C.A.

Release Date: 02/22/2011

Feb. 22, 2011 - The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) welcomed project partners today to White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WCA) to celebrate the return of the whooping crane to the marshes of southwest Louisiana.

“Species restoration successes will signal coastal restoration successes as we rebuild our wetlands, and we must make the coordinated effort to restore species that have been decimated by man-made or natural changes to wildlife habitat,” said Robert Barham, LDWF Secretary. “We applaud the efforts of the biologists who have worked to bring this magnificent bird back to Louisiana.”

Ten whooping cranes received this month from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Research Facility in Laurel, Md., have been placed in the coastal marsh of Vermilion Parish within LDWF’s White Lake Wetlands WCA. This re-introduced population, which will be annually supplemented with future cohorts, marks the first presence of whooping cranes in the wild in Louisiana since 1950.

“We strongly support the state of Louisiana in this historic effort for the ultimate recovery of the magnificent whooping crane,” said Cindy Dohner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Regional Director. “We are proud to be partners with Secretary Barham, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the International Crane Foundation in this great effort.”

LDWF worked cooperatively with USFWS, USGS, the International Crane Foundation and the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit to bring the species back to the state. Project funding is derived from LDWF species restoration dedicated funds, federal grants and private/corporate donations. LDWF’s 10-year project plan requires annual project funding of $400,000.

The new, non-migratory flock of whooping cranes is designated as a non-essential, experimental population (NEP) under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. This designation and its implementing regulation were developed to be more compatible with routine human activities in the reintroduction area.

Whooping cranes, the most endangered of all of the world’s crane species, were first added to the federal status of an endangered species on March 11, 1967. The reintroduction at White Lake is part of an ongoing recovery effort coordinated by the USFWS. LDWF biologists will manage the project at White Lake WCA.

Historically, both a resident and migratory population of whooping cranes were present in Louisiana through the early 1940s. Whooping cranes inhabited the marshes and ridges of the state’s southwest Chenier Coastal Plain, as well as the uplands of prairie terrace habitat to the north. Within this area, whooping cranes used three major habitats: tall grass prairie, freshwater marsh, and brackish/salt marsh. The Louisiana crane population was not able to withstand the pressure of human encroachment, primarily the conversion of nesting habitat to agricultural acreage, as well as hunting and specimen collection, which also occurred across North America.

The White Lake crane population’s NEP designation allows for uninterrupted daily activities of area landowners and the general public. This provision additionally provides citizens protection in the event of accidental harm to the birds resulting from actions that are accidental or incidental to an otherwise lawful activity, including agricultural practices, outdoor recreation and hunting. The intentional harm or killing of any NEP-designated whooping crane, however, would still be a violation of federal law punishable under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

“We want anyone in the marsh near White Lake to enjoy the moment should they encounter one or more of the experimental birds in the wild during this re-population effort,” said Robert Love, LDWF Coastal and Non-game Resources Division Administrator. “As long as the cranes are observed at a distance, they should adapt to occasional human encounters and not feel threatened.”

The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is charged with managing and protecting Louisiana's abundant natural resources. For more information, visit us at www.wlf.louisiana.gov on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ldwffb or follow us on Twitter @LDWF.
For more information on the re-introduction of whooping cranes to Louisiana, please visit www.wlf.la.gov or contact Tom Hess at 337-538-2276 or thess@wlf.la.gov; or Carrie Salyers at csalyers@wlf.la.gov.

For additional photos, video footage and research documentation please visit: ftp://ftp.wlf.louisiana.gov/Whooping-Crane-Videos/.

Photo Gallery

2014 Signs of Reproductive Activity: 
March 2014
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2012 Image: 
2011 Cohort: 
December 2011
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L.D.W.F. Nuisance Wildlife Workshop Feb. 22 Will Provide Options Available to the Public

Release Date: 02/19/2011

Feb. 19, 2011 - The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) will present a workshop with information on options available for nuisance wildlife control on Tuesday, Feb. 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the LSU Agriculture Extension Building in Lake Charles.

Topics to be discussed include new laws regarding night time hunting, steps that citizens can take to reduce wildlife conflicts, feral hog and coyote control, and other nuisance wildlife. There will also be an opportunity for discussions with a representative from Animal Services and a local Nuisance Wildlife Control Officer. The workshop is free and open to the public.

The Ag Extension Building is located at 7101 Gulf Extension Highway next to Burton Coliseum.

Additional information on LDWF’s Nuisance Wildlife Control Program is available at www.wlf.louisiana.gov. For more information on the workshop, contact Kori Legleu at (337) 491-2574 or klegleu@wlf.la.gov. 


Whooping Crane Reintroduction

Q: Why are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and LDWF reintroducing a nonmigratory flock of whooping cranes to Louisiana?

A: Whooping cranes currently exist in three wild populations and within captive breeding populations at 12 locations. The only self-sustaining natural wild population nests in the Northwest Territories and adjacent areas of Alberta, Canada, primarily within the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park. It is possible that all or most of the populations of these endangered birds could be wiped out from a single event such as a hurricane, disease outbreak, toxic spill, or prolonged drought.

This makes the species vulnerable to extinction. The recovery plan identifies the need for three self-sustaining wild populations—consisting of 40 nesting pairs in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population and two additional, separate and self-sustaining, populations consisting of 25 nesting pairs each—to be in existence before the whooping crane’s status is considered improved enough for reclassification to threatened status. Those new populations may be migratory or nonmigratory.

Q: Have there been other whooping crane reintroduction projects ?

A: There have been three reintroduction projects to date. There are no cranes remaining in the Rocky Mountain population. The Florida Nonmigratory Population numbers 21 birds (9 males, 12 females). Only two pairs attempted to breed during the 2009 drought, and one pair fledged a chick. In 2010, there are nine nests and one pair has fledged a chick so far. Currently, the Eastern Migratory Population numbers 106 birds. Nine pairs nested and two chicks fledged and remain alive as of November 19, 2010.

Q: What are the objectives of this reintroduction?

A: The objectives of this reintroduction into Louisiana are to: (1) advance recovery of the endangered whooping crane;(2) implement a primary recovery action for a federally listed endangered species; (3) further assess the suitability of southwest Louisiana as whooping crane habitat; and, (4) evaluate the suitability of releasing captive and parent-reared whooping cranes, conditioned for wild release, as a technique for establishing a self-sustaining, nonmigratory population. The USFWS and LDWF will collect information on survival of released birds, movements, behavior, and causes of losses, reproductive success, and other data throughout the project.

Q: Who is responsible for the reintroduction?

A: In 1985, the Director-General of the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Director of the USFWS signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entitled “Conservation of the Whooping Crane Related to Coordinated Management Activities.” The MOU was revised and signed in 1990. The U.S. Geological Survey-Biological Resources Division (Patuxent) and Parks Canada (Wood Buffalo National Park) were added as signatories in 1995. The MOU was last updated in 2001. It discusses disposition of birds and eggs, postmortem analysis, population restoration and objectives, new population sites, international management, recovery plans, and consultation and coordination. All captive whooping cranes and their future progeny are the joint responsibility of the USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Consequently, both nations are involved in recovery decisions. The USFWS and LDWF are jointly implementing this proposed reintroduction in Louisiana. LDWF will have the primary role in the reintroduction and monitoring.

Q: Where will the reintroduced cranes come from?

A: Reintroduction efforts will focus on using young hatched from whooping cranes already in captivity at captive breeding centers.

Q: Why not relocate some of the migratory whooping cranes from the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock?

A: Since the Aransas/Wood Buffalo flock is the only self-sustaining wild migratory population, it is too risky to do anything that might harm this population.

Q: Why was the White Lake Wetlands Conservation (WLWCA) Area in Louisiana chosen for the reintroduction?

A: Louisiana was chosen for a new population for several reasons. The likelihood of the releases resulting in a self-sustaining population is believed to be good. Whooping cranes historically occurred in Louisiana in both a resident, nonmigratory flock and a migratory flock that wintered in Louisiana. The release area, White Lake, is the location where whooping cranes were historically documented raising young in Louisiana. Louisiana’s long tradition of environmental commitment and support from the public increases the chances for success within the state. Louisiana’s conservation efforts have helped to recover the American alligator, Bald eagle and most recently the Brown pelican.

There are approximately 1.3 million acres of marsh, open water, and chenier habitat in southwestern coastal Louisiana. This area, also known as the Chenier Plain, has experienced one of the lowest coastal land loss rates of all the Louisiana coastal regions. In addition, 31 coastal restoration projects have been approved in this area via the Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection, and Restoration Act and are anticipated to yield an estimated 29,000 additional acres of wetlands over their 20-year life span.

Q. Does the WLWCA have enough food and forage such as blue crabs to support a whooping crane population?

A: The historic non-migratory whooping crane population was dependent upon the fresh water marshes and wet prairie. Whooping cranes are known only to nest in fresh water wetlands; therefore, the availability of blue crabs and other estuarine prey items as forage at the WLWCA was not a factor when deciding upon the release location. Other water dependent birds with diet preferences similar to whooping cranes are abundant at the WLWCA. Whooping cranes are generalists, quite adaptive, and will utilize the food sources that are available.

Q. Will the whooping cranes be at risk from contaminants at the WLWCA?

A: We reviewed the WLWCA to determine if it supported a healthy population of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, especially fish-eating birds which are at a similar risk in regard to contaminant exposure because of their level in the food chain Our review concluded that there was indeed a stable abundance and wide diversity of terrestrial and aquatic species that has been sustained at the release site. In an effort to reduce our uncertainty about the potential risks, the USFWS will undertake three actions: (1) we will initiate a review of the available information on contaminants in watersheds and the potential pathways into the proposed release site; (2) we will collaborate with current efforts that are examining the forage base at the proposed release site in order to obtain samples for potential chemical analysis; (3) because all whooping cranes will be fitted with tracking transmitters which will allow us to monitor where they forage, we will be able to collect samples from known foraging areas. The transmitters will also enable us to determine if the cranes move to an unsafe area at which point they would be captured and relocated, and if one should unfortunately die, we would be able to recover the body and determine the cause of death. Finally, we will also be conducting periodic health checks on the population and the health screening will include contamination assessment from blood and feathers and other samples. Health exams and mortality events will be important learning opportunities for examining contaminant concerns.

Q: Who owns the subsurface mineral rights to WLWCA and would that affect the reintroduction effort?

A: In July 2002, BP America Production White Lake Properties donated the WLWCA property, which it previously owned and managed, to the State of Louisiana. White Lake Preservation Inc, a non-profit, managed the property for the State until July 2005, when the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) took control.

BP retains the mineral rights to WLWCA. Those rights can be distributed by BP to others who lease from them. In order to drill a well, the lessee would need either a State coastal use permit (for the southern portion of WLWCA) or a US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) permit (for the northern portion of WLWCA) and a use permit (or agreement) from LDWF. As such, LDWF would have control over how oil and gas exploration would occur on the WLWCA. Louisiana would be able to ensure that any drilling activities would fully consider whooping crane reintroduction efforts. There is currently one active oil well on WLWCA and several inactive ones. Impacts on the reintroduced nonmigratory whooping cranes are not anticipated due to extraction activities related to oil and gas on WLWCA that are conducted in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

Q: Were these wetlands impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that impacted southeastern Louisiana coastal areas?

A: The Deepwater Horizon/MC252 Oil Spill and cleanup activities have not affected the WLWCA release area which is located in a fresh-to-brackish marsh, north of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline and about than 17 miles from the coast. Additionally, there are multiple physical barriers to stop crude oil from entering WLWCA such as the Gulf of Mexico Beach Rim, Levees, Water Control Structures, Locks, and Spill Control Equipment. Two small segments of shoreline approximately 30 to 45 miles (28 to 57 km) away from the WLWCA experienced light oiling (on Marsh Island and on adjacent western shore) during the oil spill. As of November 5, the nearest location of coastal areas with oiling are located on the eastern edge of Atchafalaya Bay, approximately 78 miles (125 km) or farther away from the WLWCA in St. Mary and Terrebonne Parishes.

Q: Why was it decided to make the Louisiana flock nonmigratory?

A: Historically, a nonmigratory population of whooping cranes occurred in Louisiana. The USFWS and LDWF are attempting to establish a nonmigratory flock as it occurred historically and doing so also avoids interactions with the existing Aransas-Wood Buffalo Population in Texas and the Eastern Migratory Population.

Q: If this reintroduction is successful, will the whooping crane be taken off the endangered species list?

A: If this reintroduction is successful and the ongoing reintroduction of a migratory whooping crane population in the Eastern United States also is successful, the federal status of the species could be changed, eventually, from endangered to threatened. This is a less restrictive designation for species that are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. While it may be possible in the long term to fully recover the species, removal of the whooping crane from the federal list of threatened and endangered species would require further steps.

Q: What did the USFWS do to meet requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in making this designation?

A: The USFWS published a Notice of Availability in the August 19, 2010, Federal Register announcing the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) of the proposal to reintroduce a nonmigratory flock of whooping cranes in Louisiana was available for public review and comment. The EA analyzed a number of different alternatives for accomplishing the goal of reintroducing whooping cranes as a nonmigratory population in Louisiana. We received several comments on the EA and made changes as appropriate before finalizing it.

Q: Where would the chicks for the whooping crane reintroduction come from?

A: The chicks will come from existing captive breeding flocks. The three primary captive breeding centers are located at the U.S. Geologic Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, and the Calgary Zoo in Alberta, Canada.

Q: Where would the reintroduction candidate cranes be reared?

A: The crane chicks in 2010 would be captive-reared at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and remain at that facility until they are transferred to Louisiana for a February 2011 release. Birds in the future may also be raised at the Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans, or the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.

Q: What happens to the young birds after they have been released at White Lake?

A: Whooping cranes will be managed and monitored by Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and other personnel prior to and after release. The birds will be observed daily while they are in the conditioning-gentle release pen. Facilities for captive maintenance of the birds will be modeled after facilities at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the International Crane Foundation. To promote wildness in the birds, every attempt is made to provide as natural an experience as possible as the pen will be constructed in a wetland habitat and access by people restricted. The pen does not have a top and thus the cranes can come and go and use the habitat within and nearby. The pen will also be provisioned with food and fresh water until they gain experience to forage on their own. The pen will help improve survival of the young birds as it will also provide a safe place to roost away from potential predators.

Q: How will you keep track of these birds after they have been released?

A: To ensure contact with the released birds, each crane will be equipped with a legband-mounted radio transmitter and/or a solar powered global positioning system (GPS) satellite transmitter. Subsequent to being gentle released, the birds will be monitored regularly to assess movements and dispersal from the area of the release pen. Whooping cranes will be checked regularly for mortality or indications of disease (listlessness, social exclusion, flightlessness, or obvious weakness). Social behavior (e.g., pair formation, dominance, cohort loyalty) will also be evaluated.

Q: What would you feed and how would you feed the cranes during the early release period?

A: The birds would be fed a pelletized food that was developed by USGS/Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and commercially produced. It contains all the minerals, proteins and vitamins needed by the growing birds, as well as medication to prevent parasites. The chicks would also be allowed to forage on natural foods as they grow older so that they could make the transition to survival in the wild.

Q: After the cranes have learned to fly, is there a chance that they would leave the White Lake area and fly to nearby wetlands?

A: At that early stage of life, the birds may wander but they do not go far. This behavior is natural as the birds learn about their environment and begin to explore. Whooping cranes within the proposed Louisiana nonmigratory population are expected to occur mostly within the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area and the adjacent wetlands in Vermilion Parish. The marshes and wetlands of southwestern Louisiana are expected to receive occasional use by the cranes and may be used in the event of future population expansion.

Q: Would people be allowed to view any part of the crane reintroduction area at White Lake?

A: Maintaining the cranes’ wild nature is critical to their future survival in the wild after they have been released. The USFWS will need to prevent the birds from associating food or care of any sort from contact with humans during the release period. Currently, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries allows limited, controlled access to the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. If this reintroduction is successful, the USFWS hopes that someday the public will be able to view these birds in the Louisiana coastal marshes.

Endangered Species Act Protection for a “Non-essential Experimental Population” of Whooping Cranes

Q: Why does the proposal to reintroduce a flock of whooping cranes include designating the flock as a “non-essential experimental” population?

A: The designation under this rule allows for management flexibility under the Endangered Species Act, which has already demonstrated and can be expected to result in increased public acceptance of the reintroduction.

This designation is made possible by provisions contained within section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, as amended. The population is considered experimental because it is being (re)introduced into suitable habitat that is outside of the whooping crane’s current range, but within its historic range. It is designated not essential because the likelihood of survival of the whooping crane, as a species, would not be reduced if this entire population was not successful and was lost.

Continued existence of the whooping crane as a species has been determined to be secure based upon the existence of the wild, migratory population and the captive breeding flocks in multiple locations. The non-essential, experimental population status will protect this whooping crane population as appropriate to conserve the population, while still allowing the presence of the cranes to be compatible with routine human activities in the reintroduction area. The USFWS believes the non-essential experimental designation will allow it to retain the full support of the public which will be critical to the success of the project.

Q: What would happen if someone shoots one of the whooping cranes in this population?

A: Because of the experimental non-essential designation in this rule, if the shooting is determined to be accidental and occurred incidentally to an otherwise lawful activity that was being carried out in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, no prosecution under the Endangered Species Act would occur. In the case of an intentional shooting, the full protection of the Endangered Species Act could apply.

Q: Are there other laws that would protect this flock of whooping cranes?

A: Yes, they would be protected under applicable state laws for non-game species and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects all birds that migrate such as herons, egrets, and songbirds.

Q: What would happen if whooping cranes from this population try to nest on my property - will this affect how I can use my property?

A: As a result of this rule’s provisions to provide management flexibility, no conflicts are envisioned between the whooping cranes’ reintroduction and activities on private lands. Any disturbance of nesting cranes on private property that is accidental or incidental to an otherwise lawful activity, such as recreation (hunting, trapping), agricultural practices (plowing, planting, application of pesticides, etc.), construction or water management would not be considered an illegal activity under the Endangered Species Act.

Crane Biology

Q: Don’t we already have cranes in Louisiana?

A: Whooping cranes occurred historically in Louisiana – both migratory and nonmigratory birds. The last whooping was removed from the wild in Louisiana in 1950. Sandhill cranes, a similar species, are known to occur in Louisiana during the fall and winter.

Q: How are whooping cranes different from sandhill cranes?

A: Whooping cranes stand nearly five feet tall, and are the tallest birds in North America. Sandhill crane adults are about four feet tall. Adult whooping crane plumage is white with black wing tips, whereas adult sandhills are grey or sometimes grey and tan. They both have a bald spot – a red, bare patch of skin on their forehead. Whooping cranes are aquatic birds, spending virtually all of the time in wetlands. Sandhill cranes will use wetlands, but also feed in upland habitats.

Whereas sandhill cranes have adapted to human agriculture and feed extensively on grain, seeds and tubers, whooping cranes prefer marsh habitat and prefer to eat crabs, invertebrates, frogs and minnows. And of course, sandhill cranes are much more common than the endangered whooping crane. Sandhill cranes occur throughout much of North America and number in the tens of thousands. Whooping cranes are known from a limited area in North America and the total world population is about 550 individuals.

Q: What is the current status of the whooping crane - is it in danger of extinction?

A: The whooping crane is a federally listed endangered species in the United States. It is one of the world’s rarest birds. The species was thought to number “in the thousands” in North America before European settlement caused population declines. Archival evidence suggests that by 1865, its population was 700 to 1,400. Their numbers dropped rapidly and by 1890 the whooping crane had disappeared from the heart of its breeding range in the north central United States. By 1938, only two small flocks remained - one nonmigratory flock in southwest Louisiana, and one migratory flock that nested in Canada and wintered in Texas. In 1941, there were only 21 whooping cranes in North America.

From near extinction 60 years ago with only 15 or 16 individuals, the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act and captive breeding efforts have enabled whooping crane populations to slowly increase. The natural flock which breeds in Canada and winters in Texas is approaching 290 individuals, there are 21 nonmigratory birds in Florida, 106 in the Eastern Migratory population and approximately150 in captivity.

While whooping cranes are not in imminent danger of extinction, extinction in the wild without reintroductions would be likely because of the small size of the single wild natural migratory flock. For this reason, multiple efforts are underway to reduce the danger of extinction by increasing populations in the wild, including a new migratory population in the East.

Q: What caused the whooping crane’s near extinction?

A: Several factors contributed to the historic decline of whooping cranes. Much of their wetland habitat was drained and converted to farm land. The migratory populations in the central U.S. and Canada lost large portions of their breeding and wintering habitat in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Then the nonmigratory population lost much of its habitat in the coastal marshes and prairies of Louisiana and Texas as wetlands were converted for rice production. In addition to outright habitat loss, these activities increased the amount of human disturbance, which may have had adverse effects on crane behavior. At the same time, hunting, egg collecting, and specimen collecting were a substantial drain on the population, particularly from 1870 to 1920.

Q: What are the current threats to whooping cranes?

A: The primary threats to whooping cranes relate to the species’ low abundance and limited distribution. Both factors make the species particularly susceptible to naturally occurring catastrophic events such as drought or hurricanes and human-caused catastrophic events such oil/chemical spills. Also, at this time, only the Aransas-wood Buffalo population is consistently able to fledge chicks, which significantly slows the species’ ability to expand its distribution.

Q: Why don’t you expect the Louisiana reintroduced whooping cranes to migrate?

A: Migration is a behavior that must be learned by cranes, and the Louisiana whooping cranes are expected to remain in areas near where they were released. The dispersal of two pair of cranes from the nonmigratory flock in Florida is thought to have occurred as a result of a severe drought in Florida which made their home marshes unsuitable for breeding. Dispersal is expected to be rare and infrequent.

Q: What habitats do whooping cranes use?

A: Whooping cranes spend most of their time in shallow water wetlands where they feed, roost, and nest. Nests are built in freshwater marshes on small islands of bulrushes, cattails, and sedges that provide protection from predators. At night, whooping cranes stand (roost) in shallow water where they are safe from coyotes and bobcats.

Q: What do whooping cranes eat?

A: Whooping cranes are generalists, quite adaptive, and will utilize the food sources that are available. The Louisiana nonmigratory whooping cranes are being released into freshwater habitats. We expect that they will feed in shallow water wetlands and eat insects, insect larvae,, minnows, fish, tadpoles, frogs snakes, crawfish, and other food items. Like other wading bird species, whooping cranes will target wetlands that are drying down and concentrating prey items. Whooping cranes will also target areas that have been flooded or burned. There they forage for acorns, snails, insects, rodents, and other food items.

Q: How long do whooping cranes live?

A: Whooping cranes may live greater than 30 years in the wild. Captive birds have lived up to 40 years.

Q: How many young does each whooping crane pair produce each year?

A: In Wood Buffalo Park, 70 pairs of cranes produce from 15 to 40 chicks each year. Whooping cranes do not start breeding until they are three to five years old even though they have their adult plumage by the time they are a little over one year old. When they do mate, they are monogamous and have the same mate for life; although, if one of the pairs dies, the remaining bird will mate with another. Whooping cranes usually nest once each year, but sometimes they will lay a second clutch of eggs if their first is destroyed. Occasionally a pair will skip a nesting season if conditions are unsuitable or for no apparent reason.

Whooping crane pairs lay two eggs in late April to mid-May, with hatching one month later. The parents share incubation and rearing duties although the female takes the primary role in feeding and caring for the young. Most often, successful nesting pairs raise one young each year. As a rule, fierce competition between the two chicks usually results in the death of the smaller, weaker sibling. Occasionally, when food supplies are abundant and the chicks are perhaps more evenly matched in size and strength, whooping cranes have been known to successfully raise two chicks.

Q: Are the remaining whooping cranes genetically diverse enough to survive into the future?

A: The Aransas population reached a low of 15 birds in 1941 which resulted in a decline in diversity and changes in gene frequencies. However, the population continues to expand and genetic diversity, though reduced, appears to be comparable to many other crane populations.

LDWF Announces Whooping Cranes Return to Louisiana

Release Date: 02/07/2011

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) announced today that it will be re-introducing the whooping crane to Louisiana later this month. The Department of Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) cleared the way for the crane's return with approval for an experimental population in southwest Louisiana.

Governor Bobby Jindal said, “Adding the whooping crane to our diverse collection of bird species further demonstrates our state’s commitment to restoring and revitalizing our coastal regions. This announcement today is another step forward in growing and enriching our state’s wildlife species and preserving our one-of-a-kind Louisiana wetlands.”

The last record of a whooping crane in Louisiana dates back to 1950, when the last surviving whooping crane was removed from Vermilion Parish property that is now part of LDWF’s White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area (WCA). Habitat loss and unrestricted hunting led to population declines nationwide and on the North American continent in the last century. The last bird in southwest Louisiana was removed to a sanctuary in 1950. LDWF in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Louisiana Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit plan to release the first group of ten non-migratory whooping cranes at the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area in February. 

LDWF Secretary Robert Barham said, “LDWF has proven through implementing recovery efforts for species like the American alligator and the brown pelican, our state’s expertise and willingness in implementing a long-term restoration plan for our most delicate wildlife.” 

The proposed designation of a non-migratory flock of whooping cranes for reintroduction to Louisiana was first published in the Federal Register on August 19, 2010. Public comments were received and two public hearings (Gueydan and Baton Rouge) were held to allow public comment. Comments were accepted through October 18, 2010 and were generally found to be supportive of the overall reintroduction effort.

The non-essential, experimental flock coming to Louisiana will carry that designation under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. This designation and its implementing regulation, as announced February 3 in the Federal Register, are developed to be more compatible with routine human activities in the reintroduction area. 

Whooping cranes are the most endangered of all of the world’s crane species, first added to the list of endangered species on March 11, 1967. Louisiana’s reintroduction is part of a larger ongoing recovery effort led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners for this highly imperiled species, which was on the verge of extinction in the 1940s and even today has only about 400 individuals in the wild.

The only self-sustaining wild population of whooping cranes migrates between Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories of Canada and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Like those in the eastern migratory population, it remains vulnerable to extinction from continued loss of habitat or natural or man-made catastrophes. Multiple efforts are underway to reduce this risk and bring this magnificent bird further along its path to recovery. This includes increasing populations in the wild, ongoing efforts to establish a migratory population in the eastern United States, and establishing a resident population in Louisiana.

For more information on whooping cranes and the re-introduction of whooping cranes to Louisiana, please visit the LDWF’s website at www.wlf.la.gov or the Service’s website at http://www.fws.gov/southeast and the International Crane Foundation at: http://www.savingcranes.org/

For more information contact Bo Boehringer at 225-765-5115 or bboehringer@wlf.la.gov.

General Alligator Information

History of Harvest and Trade

Alligators have been harvested for some two hundred years. Alligators were first harvested in Louisiana in great numbers in the early 1800s. These alligators were harvested for their skins, which were used to make boots, shoes and saddles, and for their oil, which was used to grease steam engines and cotton mills. The demand decreased when the leather made from the skins was thought to not be durable. In the mid 1800s the demand for alligator skins increased again. These skins were used to make shoes and saddles for the Confederate troops during the Civil War. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, commercial tanning processes began in New York, New Jersey and Europe. Because this process made the alligator skins soft, durable and more pliable, the demand for alligator leather increased dramatically.

By the mid 1900s Louisiana’s alligator population had been significantly reduced. In 1962 the alligator hunting season was closed statewide due to low numbers. The reduction in numbers was a result of nonregulated harvests. Detrimental harvest practices included overharvesting (today harvest quotas are set annually for each property currently hunted), non-selection of sexes which often resulted in overharvesting females (males currently comprise approximately 70% of adult alligators harvested) and no closed season, allowing hunting to coincide with nesting, which resulted in the harvest of future populations by harvesting females before they could release hatchlings from the nest or even begin nesting (current seasons are conducted in September after nesting).

Through protection, research and management, Louisiana’s alligator population increased to a level capable of sustaining harvests. In 1972 the alligator season was opened only in Cameron Parish and lasted 13 days. Other parishes were gradually added until the season became statewide in 1981. Louisiana’s wild and farm alligator harvests currently exceed 300,000 animals annually, while the population level (based on aerial nest surveys) remains stable.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an agreement between 175 countries to adhere to guidelines concerning international trade of certain wild animals and plants so as to not threaten their survival. A requirement derived from CITES is that LDWF illustrates annually that the harvest of alligators/alligator eggs has “no detriment” to Louisiana’s alligator population. Louisiana is currently harvesting less than 2% of the wild population annually. Two crucial instruments used annually to illustrate “no detriment” are aerial alligator nest surveys and harvest statistics. Each year biologists also use these instruments, as well as many others, to set alligator harvest and alligator egg collection quotas statewide.

Another requirement derived from CITES is the tagging of all harvested alligators. Barcodes were added to Louisiana’s alligator tags in 2008 to assist in inventorying and tracking alligator hides. LDWF tracks each alligator tag from hunter/farmer issuance to shipment out of Louisiana or finishing in Louisiana. This tracking system also provides other important information such as harvest areas, alligator lengths/widths and the number of alligators taken.

The alligator (American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis) is currently listed on Appendix II of CITES due to its similar appearances to other alligators/crocodiles which are listed as threatened or endangered with extinction. Louisiana’s alligators are not “endangered” or even “threatened” with extinction. Alligator populations in Louisiana increased consistently from 1970 to 1999, have remained stable/slightly increasing for the last 10 years and currently remain at high levels.


The American alligator is the largest reptile in North America. The first reptiles appeared 300 million years ago; ancestors of the American alligator appeared 160 million years ago. Reptiles are cold-blooded animals, which means that their body temperature is regulated by the temperature of the environment around them. This is why alligators are seen basking in the sun, trying to regulate their body temperature. Because alligators are cold-blooded, their body rates are slowed down and they feed less frequently in winter months. For this reason, alligators enter underground holes/dens and remain dormant throughout the winter months.

Size and Growth Rates

Alligators are about 8" - 12" in length when they are hatched from eggs. Growth rates may vary from 2" per year up to 12" per year, depending on the type of habitat in which the alligator is living and the sex, size and age of the alligator. Growth rates slow down as alligators become older. Male alligators will grow faster and larger than females. Females can grow to approximately 9' in length and 200+ pounds. Males can grow to approximately 13'+ in length and attain 500+ pounds.

Range and Habitat

Alligators range from central Texas eastward to North Carolina. Louisiana has the highest alligator population, currently approaching 2 million. Although alligators can be found in ponds, lakes, canals, bayous, rivers and swamps, in Louisiana the highest populations occur in coastal marshes. Of the almost 4.5 million acres of alligator habitat available in Louisiana, coastal marshes account for approximately 3 million, followed by cypress-tupelo swamp (750,600 acres), dewatered wetlands (350,000 acres), Atchafalaya Basin swamp (207,000 acres) and lakes (47,450 acres). Approximately 79% of Louisiana’s coastal marsh alligator habitats are privately owned.


Mature male, non-breeding female and sub-adult alligators tend to stay in deep water habitats. Alligators mate during the spring. After mating, females select nesting sites, usually near isolated ponds in interior marsh habitats. These areas usually have dense vegetation adjacent to the isolated ponds which will be used for nest construction. Female alligators generally build their nests by pulling vegetation together forming a mound. This mound nest will be 2' - 4' high and 4' - 8' in diameter. The female alligator makes a cavity by opening the nest and lays 20-60 eggs (averaging 35 eggs). After all the eggs have been laid, the female covers the cavity containing the eggs with vegetation from the nest. The nest vegetation maintains suitable temperatures and humidity which incubates the eggs. The female will remain near the nest during incubation and must open the nest to help the young alligators (hatchlings) exit the nest. Approximately 65 days after the eggs have been laid, the young will begin hatching and calling. Upon hearing the calls of the young, the female alligator will help them exit the nest by opening the top of the nest. The young may stay near the nest site for a couple of years. During the winter, alligators will enter underground holes/dens and remain dormant. As spring arrives, alligators emerge from winter dormancy and the annual processes (mating, nesting, winter dormancy, etc.) begin again.

Food Habits

Young alligator diets consist of small animals such as insects, crawfish, small fish, frogs, etc. As alligators grow large enough their diet changes to include larger animals such as rats, crabs, larger fish and frogs, small birds, etc. When alligators mature their diet changes to include even larger animals such as muskrats, nutria, beaver, raccoons, large birds and fish, snakes, turtles, deer, etc.

Wild Harvest Seasons, Aerial Nest Surveys, and Quotas

Much effort and time is needed in preparation for the wild alligator season in Louisiana. Preparation begins in June when the annual aerial alligator nest survey is conducted. The survey consists of sampling almost 150,000 acres coast wide and takes approximately 9 days to complete. Data obtained during the survey is used to calculate nest densities for over 50 management units statewide. Management units are classified by habitat type (fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes, swamps, lakes, etc.) for each parish/sub-parish. Other important data collected during the survey is habitat conditions. Louisiana’s wild alligator season usually begins in late August/early September and continues for approximately one month. Each year following alligator nest surveys, La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel review current habitat assessments, 5 year average nest densities and past harvest statistics and tag allotments for each management unit statewide. Tag allotments and harvest quotas are then set for each management unit for the upcoming wild alligator season. An alligator hunter must possess alligator CITES tags to harvest alligators and must attach these tags to alligators immediately upon harvest. The tags are issued by the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries for property containing sufficient alligator habitat capable of sustaining an alligator harvest. Alligator hunters apply for alligator tags prior to the season. The alligator hunter application includes a license application form containing alligator hunter information (name, dob, address, etc.), a legal description (township, range and sections) and map of the property to be hunted, and a landowner’s signature indicating permission for the hunter to harvest alligators on the property. La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel review each alligator hunting application and enter each property into a GIS computer system which assesses property acreage by habitat type and makes appropriate tag allocations (the number of alligators that may be harvested from that specific property). Prior to the wild alligator season, alligator hunters go to La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries offices where they are issued the appropriate licenses and CITES alligator tags. Alligator hunter licenses possess important information about the hunter as well as the properties to be hunted. Alligator tags are property specific and must be used on the property indicated on the hunter’s license. The majority of the wild alligators are harvested by the fishing method. Baited hooks are suspended above the water. Alligators (feeding primarily at night) take the bait and are dispatched by the hunter when he checks his lines early each day. Alligators are immediately tagged and transported to licensed facilities which process alligators for their meat, hides and other commercially valuable parts.

Ranching and Farming

Research showed alligators could be grown successfully under artificial conditions on farms. To provide alligators for stocking alligator farms, Louisiana began an alligator ranching program in 1986 which allows licensed alligator farmers to collect alligator eggs on private lands and incubate and hatch those eggs under artificial conditions. Most alligator egg collectors fly (some use helicopters, ultra-lights, motorized parachutes, etc.) to survey areas in which they are permitted to collect eggs (in swamps, egg collectors usually identify nest locations from boats). Upon nest identification, collectors mark nest locations using pvc, bamboo, flagging, gps or maps, visit nest locations (usually by airboat), open nests and collect eggs. Nesting material is placed around eggs in storage containers (trash cans, ice chests, plastic boxes, etc.). A storage container may contain several nests. Because alligator embryos attach to the tops of eggs, embryos will die if eggs are turned over. For this reason, the tops of eggs are usually marked so eggs are not accidentally turned over. Eggs are transported to incubators where the eggs are then transferred to numbered baskets. The numbering of baskets help provide necessary data concerning nest locations, egg numbers and hatching rates. Baskets containing eggs are placed in incubators which provide optimum conditions for egg incubation. The incubators are heated to approximately 86-91o Fahrenheit (F) and provide moisture to aid incubation. Approximately 65 days later, baskets are opened and the hatchlings are removed. A unique characteristic of alligators is sex determination through incubation temperatures. More males are produced when eggs are incubated at higher temperatures (90o F and above). Conversely, more females are produced when eggs are incubated at lower temperatures (87o F and below). Hatchlings are then transferred to raising facilities sometimes called grow out pens.

Farming Facilities

Alligator raising facilities are characterized by many different building designs and sizes. Nevertheless, these facilities must meet specific requirements set forth by the La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries. The facilities are insulated and heated and are capable of containing, filtering, draining and heating water to maintain temperatures between approximately 85-90o F. Buildings are usually partitioned so as to limit the number of alligators in one area. Such partitioning configurations include stalls or shelves.

Farm Harvest Sizes and Releases into the Wild

Farmers raise alligators until they reach approximately 3' to 5' in length. At this time, the farmer must return back into the wild what would have survived to the 3' to 5' size classes (at 4' average length, 12% of hatch). La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries personnel travel to these farms and must measure, mark and identify the sex of every alligator before release. Alligator farmers and landowners/managers release the farm raised alligators into the wild. Because of the numbered webtags and tail markings, a farm-released alligator can later be identified. The information gathered from these farm-released alligators such as growth, survival and dispersal rates is used to monitor and promptly adjust any regulations when needed. Farm raised alligators have faster growth rates than wild alligators due to continuous and optimum growing conditions (food supply, air and water temperatures - wild alligators have approximately 6 months of growing conditions due to cooler temperatures in the late fall, winter and early spring months). Two advantages of releasing juvenile farm raised alligators are alligators released have better chances of survival (alligators released are 3'-5' and have better chances of survival than hatchlings 8"-12") and alligators are produced every year (if predators destroy nests or flooding occurs, no eggs would hatch and thus no recruitment to the population). The remaining percentage not released into the wild can be sold by the farmer. The majority of farm alligators are harvested at the 3'-4' size classes. Natural mortality in the wild suggests most alligators harvested by farmers would not have hatched/survived if left in the wild and would have been a loss of the resource. Between 1999 and 2008, over 2.5 million (average 251,529 per year) alligators were harvested on farms in Louisiana and were valued at over $335 million (average $33,557,612 per year).

Hides and Products

Although practically every part of the alligator is used, the meat and the skins are the most valuable. Raw alligator skins are preserved before tanning by salting the hides. The hides are then rolled up and sent to tanneries around the world. Tanneries convert the raw hides into finished alligator leather. Many color and skin finish combinations exist ranging from matte white to glossy black. Once alligator hides have been tanned, they are used to make all types of products varying in size from earrings to sofas. Such products may include key chains, money clips, watch bands, boots, shoes, belts, briefcases, wallets, purses, etc.

Economic Value

Alligators are a renewable natural resource. By placing an economic value on alligators, landowners are offered incentives to not only conserve wetlands but also enhance them, so as to increase alligator populations. Water control structures such as this may reduce the number of alligator eggs lost to flooding. Water control structures also allow land managers to manipulate water levels to properly manage alligator populations, which not only benefits alligators but birds, fish, furbearers and other animals that live there as well. Louisiana now has an alligator program in which ranchers collect over 350,000 alligator eggs, trappers harvest over 28,000 wild alligators and farmers harvest over 250,000 farm raised alligators annually. Raw meat and hide values are estimated at over $10 million for the wild harvest and over $40 million for the farm harvest annually. (Note these values consist of raw meat and hides only and are not reflective of hide values after tanning and product manufacturing, values associated with jobs, tourism, economy, etc. or egg values.) Estimates have been made that the alligator industry is valued at over $50 million annually to Louisiana. The majority of farm and wild alligator skins are being tanned in Singapore, Italy and France. In recent years the United States tanned less than 10% of all alligator skins produced in Louisiana. Although over 300,000 alligators are harvested annually from farm and wild sources, the population remains constant/slightly increasing. Through wise utilization and proper management, Louisiana’s alligator population continues to remain stable while at the same time allowing for the sustainable use of a valuable renewable natural resource.

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