WASHINGTON— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been planning to weaken whooping crane protections since early 2021, according to federal documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity.
All the while officials seem to have been deliberately misleading the public about their intention to downlist the imperiled birds from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act out of fear that the decision would trigger intense public scrutiny and backlash.
Even though the Service has nearly completed a proposed rule to downlist the whooping crane and developed a public outreach plan for messaging the proposal, the agency continues to deny it has been seriously considering weaking protections. The Service’s months-long strategy of hiding this information was revealed in emails, talking points and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“It’s appalling that the Biden administration is considering weakening protections for the whooping crane when these birds’ home will be underwater within decades because of climate change and sea-level rise,” said Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist at the Center. “It’s doubly shameful that the administration would go to such great lengths to keep the public in the dark about this disastrous plan.”
To delay alerting the public, the Service omitted the whooping crane proposal from its public-facing workplan for downlisting and delisting species. Gary Frazer, assistant director for ecological services, was aware that Service staff did not want to include the downlisting proposal in the workplan and questioned that strategy. But ultimately the agency did not include any information in the workplan, which was subsequently released in September 2021.
In November the Service began working on its outreach plan, which included an internal communications strategy used for “high-profile or controversial announcements.” The agency’s talking points conceded that criteria for reclassifying the crane under its recovery plan had only been “partially met” and that “the future of whooping cranes in the wild is not guaranteed without continued protections.” Yet the Service was proposing to remove some protections, including measures to minimize collisions with transmission lines and other structures, which would hinder further recovery.
It was not until December — when the Biden administration released its Fall Unified Agenda — that the public was made aware the Service was assessing the whooping crane’s status. But the notice deceptively stated that “based on the reassessment, the FWS may propose to downlist or delist the species, unless the FWS determines no change in its status is warranted,” even though the proposed rule was already prepared to move forward.
The documents also show that when agency officials were asked about the Service’s intentions, they continued to assert that “no decisions have been made regarding the ESA status of the whooping crane,” despite the fact that the proposed downlisting rule had been reviewed by the headquarters staff and the agency had already drafted press materials celebrating the decision.
“The Service knows this is indefensible, so officials are saying whatever they can to avoid coming clean,” said Kurose. “It’s disturbing that the agency is ignoring the best available science and seems to be following the same anti-conservation tactics of the previous administration. Whooping cranes are endangered, and they need all the protections we can give them.”
The whooping crane is North America's tallest bird, with males standing nearly 5 feet tall. Whooping cranes are the rarest of the world’s crane species, with just 506 individuals in the Texas population and 79 individuals in the eastern population. When the snowy-white birds are alarmed, they make a loud, single-note vocalization, which is likely the origin of their common name.
The Service’s own recovery plan calls for at least 1,000 wild cranes before they can be downlisted to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act. Whooping cranes are threatened by sea-level rise caused by climate change, habitat degradation and destruction, pesticides, shootings, power-line collisions and the limited genetics of the remaining population.