Whooping Cranes occur only in North America. They currently exist in the wild at three locations and in captivity at seven sites. The total wild population was estimated at 344 in March 2007, including 237 individuals in the Aransas–Wood Buffalo Population (AWBP), 45 captive-raised and released individuals in the Florida Population (FP), and 62 individuals in the eastern United States that migrate between Wisconsin and Florida. The captive population consisted of 145 birds in March 2007.
In Canada, critical habitat includes the marshes located in the northeastern corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. There are ongoing studies and consultation to identify additional critical habitat that may be necessary for the recovery of the Whooping Crane, including staging areas in Canada. In the United States, critical habitat has been designated at five locations: Cheyenne Bottoms State Waterfowl Management Area, Kansas; Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, Kansas; the Platte River bottoms between Lexington and Denman, Nebraska; Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma; and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and vicinity, Texas.
Historic population declines resulted from habitat destruction, shooting, and displacement by human activities. Current threats include limited genetic diversity within the population, loss and degradation of migration stopover habitat, construction of additional power lines, degradation of coastal habitat, and potential chemical spills on the wintering grounds in Texas.
The overall recovery goal is to protect, restore, and manage the species to be self-sustaining in the wild in North America, allowing initially for redesignation to threatened status and, ultimately, removal from the list of threatened and endangered species. The long-term recovery goal is to establish 1000 Whooping Cranes in North America by 2035.
The principal strategy of the Whooping Crane recovery program is to augment and increase the wild population by reducing threats and establishing two additional and discrete populations. Offspring from the captive breeding population will be released into the wild to establish these populations. Production by released birds and their offspring will ultimately result in self-sustaining wild populations. The continued growth of the AWBP and the two additional populations will also stem the loss of genetic diversity.
The effective population size (Ne) for Whooping Cranes needed in the wild to ensure species survival is unknown; however, the following criteria must be met prior to redesignation (downlisting) of the Whooping Crane from endangered to threatened: (1) establish a minimum of 40 productive pairs in the AWBP and a minimum of 25 productive pairs occurring in self-sustaining populations at each of two other discrete locations; if only one introduced population becomes self-sustaining, then the AWBP must remain above 400 individuals; if the two reintroduced populations fail to become self-sustaining, then the AWBP needs to remain above 1000 individuals, and (2) maintain a minimum of 153 Whooping Cranes in captivity (21 productive pairs).
The short-term objectives to meet the recovery goal are to (1) increase the AWBP to 240 individuals and 70 productive pairs by 2010; (2) increase the captive populations to 45 breeding pairs by 2010; (3) establish two additional wild populations by participating in the international effort to increase the FP to 100 individuals and 10 productive pairs by 2010, and establishing an eastern migratory population containing 80 adults by 2010; (4) analyze banding data and determine the Ne/N ratio for the AWBP; and (5) promote education on Whooping Crane recovery through innovative media technologies.