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Great Lakes Article:

Whooping cranes were grounded by FAA restrictions

Article courtesy of the ASSOCIATED PRESS

September 22, 2001

Flight restrictions federal aviation officials imposed following terrorist attacks in New York and Washington did not just halt commercial air travel and strand travelers worldwide. They also temporarily grounded a group of nine whooping cranes in Wisconsin getting ready to fly south for winter.

Researchers with the nonprofit group Operation Migration are hoping to establish the nation's second migratory flock of the endangered birds by leading the cranes with an ultralight aircraft in October to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in central Florida.

To build up their endurance for the journey, the cranes have been taking to the skies over the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge since July, led by the ultralight.

The birds' training flights were halted Sept. 11 when the Federal Aviation Administration grounded aircraft that use visual flight rules, which allow small aircraft to fly with little contact with air traffic controllers.

Since the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the FAA had allowed only instrument-rated pilots who file flight plans with airports to fly.

But the cranes resumed their training flights Friday after the government reopened the nation's rural airspace to small planes, including the ultralights used to train the whooping cranes.

"They flew really beautifully this morning,'' Operation Migration pilot Deke Clark said after taking the cranes for an 8-minute flight Saturday morning.

The birds, which hatched in May from eggs at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., exercise daily to build their strength so they can follow the ultralight, as they would their parents, on a predetermined route south.

"If this (the FAA restrictions) went on for about two, two-and-a-half weeks, it would have been very difficult to make it all come together,'' Clark said.

Beth Goodman, with the state Department of Natural Resources endangered resources program, said officials were considering writing letters and making telephone calls to win an exemption from the FAA for the crane migration project before officials lifted the restrictions.

"If we had lost a fair amount of time, or the project would have ended, that would have been very sad,'' Goodman said.

Goodman and Clark said the birds won't leave right on schedule, but there's still time to make up their missed training so they can leave for Florida by mid-October.

"I'd just as soon not fly in the snow,'' said Clark, a retired military and commercial airline pilot.

The cranes started their training when the sound of an ultralight engine was played to them while they were still in the eggs.

The whooping cranes will follow the same route south that 11 sandhill cranes from the Necedah refuge following an ultralight took last October. The sandhill cranes made the return trip on their own last spring.

Whooping cranes, named for their loud mating call, were thought to number between 700 and 1,400 in North America before unregulated hunting and habitat destruction brought them close to extinction in the 1940s.

About 400 whooping cranes exist in the world, with 188 of them migratory.

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