By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The nine juvenile whooping cranes whose migration to Florida was halted in Franklin County, Al by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation in December apparently liked Alabama so much that they have decided to stay and become Alabama residents.
Whooping cranes are a federally protected endangered species. To help increase the likelihood that the rare birds will survive their first migration, for the past 11 years the young cranes have been following pilots wearing whooping crane costumes flying a ultra-light on their journey from Wisconsin to wintering grounds in Florida. This year the young birds’ migration was halted by order of the FAA, who were investigating whether or not the migration was in violation of an FAA regulation.
The ultra-lights are licensed as light sport aircraft under rules that took effect in 2008. Federal regulations prohibit craft licensed that way to be flown for hire or for business activities. According to the FAA record an ultra-light can not be used for commercial aviation. The FAA investigation here centered on whether or not that regulation was being violated by Operation Migration. The nine young birds had been living in a pen in Franklin County since they and their ultra-light were grounded by the federal government.
According to Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman, “Sport pilots are flying for compensation, which is prohibited under the regulations. The pilots have voluntarily grounded themselves,” Lunsford said. “The FAA has not suspended Operation Migration. The pilots themselves have decided to cease flying while the organization waits for an answer to its requested exemption from the regulations.”
Eventually the FAA gave them a temporary waiver exempting Operation Migration from the regulation and allowing them to continue their trip to Florida. After all this time the birds refused to follow the guy in the bird costume flying the ultra-light. Since the birds will not voluntarily leave, the decision was made to net the birds, load the birds into travel containers and truck them 70 miles from Winston County to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.
“We are fortunate to be in a position to help by standing in for our sister refuges at Chassahowitzka and St. Marks in Florida,” said Dwight Cooley, refuge manager for Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, on the outskirts of Decatur, Alabama. “While we hope they will visit us again in coming winters, where they eventually winter is not nearly as important as their survival, and the hope they will complete many more migrations in years to come. Their continued safety is our highest concern. ”
“We also have fantastic observation facilities and viewing platforms that allow great views and don’t disturb the wildlife,” said Cooley. “We’ve got great habitat and conditions, as evidenced by the number of cranes wintering on the refuge.”
The refuge hosted more than 11,000 sandhill cranes this winter, as well as seven whooping cranes.
More on the whooping cranes
Hash tags: whooping cranes ultra-lights Operation Migration Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge FAA