Operation Migration to dissolve

Unique whooping crane conservation effort began 25 years ago

Whooping cranes, an endangered and federally protected species, stand nearly five feet tall and have a wingspan of about 7.5 feet.

PRINCETON, Wis. — After years of successfully guiding young whooping cranes on their first southward migration, Operation Migration will permanently close at the end of 2018.

The aircraft-guided migration trips and the public attention and support Operation Migration generated globally helped restore whooping cranes to their former range in eastern North America. The cranes remain endangered and are a federally protected species.

Operation Migration formed 25 years ago when two artists-turned-aviators developed a method of teaching migratory birds to follow an aircraft along a pre-selected migratory path, which began in Wisconsin and ended in Florida.

Innovators Bill Lishman and Joe Duff developed the aircraft-guided migration method into an effective means of reintroducing endangered whooping cranes into an area they had not inhabited in over a century.

The approach helped establish a new population of the cranes, separate and distinct from the only remaining natural flock in western North America.

Aircraft-guided whooping crane migrations led by Operation Migration ended in 2015. Aircraft used in Operation Migration’s flights are on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wis.

In 2001, the first migration flight leading whooping cranes provided an uplifting story for the nation that was struggling with the aftermath of the 9-11 attack. For 15 years, Operation Migration pilots and ground crew led whooping cranes on a journey toward survival, and in that time covered 17,457 miles with a total of 186 whooping cranes following.

The aircraft-guided migrations ended in fall of 2015 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the method was “too artificial.”

Since the flights were discontinued, Operation Migration has conducted crane research including costume rearing, releasing parent-reared cranes and helping to track and monitor the Eastern flock.

“This difficult decision to dissolve the organization is heartbreaking for us all, but we have exhausted all possible avenues to avoid this outcome,” said Duff, who is Operation Migration’s CEO and cofounder. “We continued our work based upon our belief that the goal of a self-sustaining Eastern migratory population of whooping cranes was attainable; however, with new management directives authorized by the Whooping Crane Recovery Team and implemented by Region 3 Fish and Wildlife Service, we no longer believe this goal is achievable,” he continued.

“As a result, we cannot continue, in good faith, to accept contributions or assign our staff and volunteers to carry out the work outlined in the strategic plan imposed on the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.”

Supporters from around the world have contributed to Operation Migration’s aircraft-guided project, its costume-rearing program, and education and research programs, all of which have contributed to whooping crane conservation.

Aircraft used in Operation Migration’s flights are on display at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.; the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.; and the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wis.