Yes, you read the title right whoopers, or whooping cranes, in the Upper Wind River Valley. How can that be? Whooping cranes are one of the rarest bird breeds in North America, on par with the California Condor, Rufous Hummingbird, and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
The Whooping Crane is more than five feet tall and is bright white with black feathers on the ends of its wings and a red cap with yellow eyes. This very large, beautiful bird was critically endangered with 16 in the flock that migrated from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and another six in Louisiana that did not migrate. This was it! 22 total Whooping Cranes in the world in 1942. The six in Louisiana later died out and all that was left were the 16 that migrated between Canada and Texas.
The largest captive breeding program was started with 12 eggs collected from the wild in 1967. This breeding program was at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, which now has over 60 adults and produces about 40 eggs a year. A young whooper named Canus fractured its wing and was the first whooper at the preserve. He has sired many cranes in captivity that have been introduced to the wild.
In 1967 the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts using Sandhill Cranes as foster parents. These foster parents hatched Whooping Crane eggs and raised the young and guided them on migration routes to wintering grounds. In 1975, they began an experiment to create a new flock in the wild at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. This flock of cranes migrate to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, only 850 miles distant in contrast to the 2,500 miles from Wood Buffalo to Aransas. Even though this looked promising in the beginning, it did prove to not be successful because the Whooping Crane chicks imprinted on the Sandhill Cranes and never did mate or pair with other Whooping Cranes. This Rocky Mountain population peaked at 33 whoopers in 1984-1985 after the introduction of 289 eggs. This project was stopped in 1989 and in 1999 there were four whoopers left in Idaho, two in 2001, and now none.
What does all this have to do with the Upper Wind River Valley? At the Dubois Museum, we have a collection of notecards that Mary Back kept notes about nature and the like. Mary was one of the first area naturalists and artists in Dubois. In Mary’s collection, she has a notecard that is titled “Whooping Crane”.
Turns out Mary documented a report on May 24, 1983 near Crowheart by Marguerite Snyder: “in lower Rocky O’Neal plowed field by river. Seen by Dave Neary also and see Peg Abbotts’ report. I have heard (no names so far) of 4 being seen in the area, with a number of Sandhill Cranes.”
Then again: “July and August 1984 one summered on DuNoir River with 2 Sandhill Cranes. I have 2 good photos taken by Meredith Taylor.”
The last entry: “November 18, 1984 Basque del Apache NWF.”
Dave Neary clearly remembers the day he saw a pair of Sandhill Cranes land in the field with a magnificent huge white Whooping Crane with them. The birds were about 30-40 yards away from him. “It was the thrill of a lifetime. The only one I have ever seen and probably the only one I ever will in my life. The only thing that comes close to seeing this Whooping Crane was hiking in Uganda with a guide and seeing a gorilla a few feet away under some brush.”
Meredith Taylor said, “I remember seeing the one on the DuNoir just like it was yesterday. It was a chick with surrogate parents that were Sandhill Cranes.” She did not remember taking photos, but very well may have. Meredith also saw the same thing in Yellowstone around the same time period while guiding wildlife viewing tours. “We went Slough Creek looking for grizzly bears and we saw a Whooper! I told my guest this was a much rarer sight than a grizzly bear. You guys really got a once-in-a-lifetime treat today!”
Michael Kenney, another Dubois resident and now avid birder also saw the DuNoir Whooper. Michael was on his way to work at Dubois Telephone Exchange and spent some time looking up the DuNoir Valley, spotting the two Sandhill Cranes in an old oxbow but that was all he saw at first. After spending some time, he eventually saw all three. The chick was clearly a Whooper and was a sight that “got my young birding blood pumping.” This was long before Michael had any camera gear and it is safe to say he was late to work that day, but he didn’t mind.
Interestingly, in the early 1990s, Michael was headed home from work and was a brilliant, huge, white bird in the DuNoir Valley again. He stopped and checked it out. It was one single adult Whooping Crane. As we talked on the phone Michael still wonders to this day if that was the same little chick that he first saw 10 years before in the same valley. It very well could have been. Whooping Cranes live in the wild up to 25 years old and they learn migration paths from their parents, in this case, the foster Sandhill Cranes. It also could be possible since we now know that the chicks that were raised in this situation did not find a mating partner.
Today there are about 440 Whooping Cranes in the wild and 160 in captivity. All of these Whoopers come from the population that winters in Aransas Wildlife Refuge in Texas and summer at the Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.
Author: Johanna Thompson
Next up for the Fremont County Museum
January 18, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “My Life Caving: Juan Laden” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
February 8, 6pm at the Dubois Museum, “Brian DeBolt: Wolves in Wyoming” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
March 3, 4-6pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Celebrating Women’s History Month” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.
The Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation has been created to specifically benefit The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum. The WRCCF will help deliver the long term financial support our museums need to flourish. In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Wind River Cultural Centers Foundation at PO Box 1863 Lander, WY 82520 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.