Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains, Part III

After posting Parts I and II of "Bring back the Great White Birds of the Plains," I received a note from Kerry Finley, the retired biologist who did the research and put together the story of the last Whooping Cranes to breed in Saskatchewan. Kerry, who reminds me that he is not so much "irascible" as he is "cantankerous" (though only when necessary, he says), has some more facts and reflections to add to the narrative as well as some pertinent images. Here is what he sent along a few days ago:

Since Trevor has shone a light on the future of the PFRA pastures and endangered species, it is ironic that it falls on the R.M. of Progress, and a large chapter in - not only my life - but in Canadian history. His beam focused on the moment it came together – early on a fine spring morning of May 8th, 2012, on an isolated dirt road running along the four-strand PFRA fence, near Shallow Lake, the last nesting grounds of the whooping cranes on the prairies. It was the moment that Bill Cholin pulled out the ‘Yellow Poster’ and laid it out on the hood of the truck. It was an unplanned historic occasion, going back to the remarkable coincidence of three events in 1922 – the discovery of the last breeding ground by Neil Gilmour of the provincial museum, the killing of a whooping crane family by my grandfather, and federal protection under the International Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916.

2012 expedition--from left, Lorne Scott, Bill Cholin, and George Archibald

My first natural history anecdote, published in 1972, was based on the infamous photograph of my grandfather and Mr. Perry’s “crime scene”, dully titled “A 1921 photograph of Whooping Crane”. It was a crime, their friend, Dinny Hanbidge, later-judge and Lieutenant-Governor, told them that Ottawa would hang them for, so the evidence was hidden until my grandfather confided it, and Mr. Perry confessed. The year was based on his recollection, and was only recently corrected in my follow-up article “Return of the Golden Bird” (200?). In fact, it happened in the autumn of 1922, and I was able to reconstruct the setting and circumstances.

Only two years prior to my revealing this dark family secret, I’d been initiated into Gruidae (Crane) culture, in my first job as the caretaker of the “international crane breeding centre” under Al Oeming at the Alberta Game Farm. Little did I know that George Archibald had begun his career at the same facility a few years earlier, before co-founding the International Crane Research facility in Aldo Leopold country, Wisconsin. So when I first met George, on the evening before our rendezvous with Bill Cholin and others, we had much to catch up on, as I took him on a brief tour around the Progress PFRA pasture.

A year earlier George had read my article on the Golden Bird and one day I received a real letter in the mail, thanking me for my observations, concluding with this inspiration : “And what a goal it is to return Whooping Cranes as breeding residents on the prairies of Saskatchewan!” Dr. George Archibald, International Crane Research Centre.

It was a golden evening, the prairie lush, the sloughs full of waterfowl, as the last small flocks of the Sandhill Cranes migrated through on their way to Alaska (where George was headed on his peripatetic schedule), and onward, I learned from him, to Siberia. We heard a Sprague’s Pipit and an Upland Sandpiper sing, prompting thoughts of Aldo Leopold. We saw a White-tailed Jackrabbit, and a Ferruginous Hawk on its nest in the long-abandoned schoolyard, where Archie Smith and his siblings attended school (see Trevor’s blog re: Archie’s contributions), before the settlers were bought out and the sandy area amalgamated into a large community pasture.

George was deeply impressed at how much wilderness had been reclaimed under PFRA management. I told him about my foray the previous autumn around the great marsh, in relation to the diorama at the Saskatchewan Natural History Museum, that had so impressed me, and so many young prairie naturalists. Its location had been deliberately obscured to protect the last breeding pairs.

Diorama at Royal Sask Museum, formerly "Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History"
I recalled the time, when I was about six, that I got on a homemade ice sailboard with my dad’s friend, and we sailed wildly to the far side of the big marsh, only to discover that the thrill was going down-wind, and my trusted adult, no sailor. After the interminable walk back, I never set foot in the vast monotonous, short-grass pasture in spite of the fact that I was an avid hunter and naturalist, until the previous autumn when I traced Neil Gilmours footsteps around the southern shore.

Crane and coyote tracks on shores of Shallow Lake

George was surprised that no-one had bothered, in ninety years, to retrace the expedition, or evaluate the particular features that constituted their archetypal habitat … even though one of the long, outstanding recommendations of the International Crane Recovery team was to re-establish Whooping Cranes on the Canadian prairies. The last time that that prospect had been investigated was during a drought when most of the large alkali sedge marshes had dried out, and though these particular sites were identified from the historical accounts, it was a literature review, without any hands-on experience. In fact, because of the drought, it was recommended that possible re-introduction sites should be in the inter-lake district of Manitoba or in Last Mountain Lake. This plan was not followed up because of the disastrous initial steps in the re-introduction and cross-fostering programs, which have cooled any enthusiasm for re-introduction into populated areas.

Yet, as I pointed out to George as we passed invisible “Baloil”, rural Saskatchewan has been greatly de-populated since my grandfather’s time and places like Shallow Lake are actually protected by their monotony, and their administration as community pastures. As if on cue, the appearance of a Jackrabbit, along a carragana row, allowed me to unleash some of my local traditional knowledge and natural history, which, as Trevor noted, has gotten me into trouble from time to time. 

My exhilaration at seeing the date of December 1922 on the the Yellow Poster, was not only due to the exoneration of my grandfather and Mr. Perry. They did not willfully kill a protected species. In fact, in the long run, nothing matters except the protection of their known archetypal habitat. The touch-down of the radio-tagged “Golden Bird” and its parents in 1982 indicates that their innate desire for traditional habitats is as deep as their deep ancestry.

In 2016, Canada will be recognizing the 100th anniversary of the International Migratory Treaty.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Share this post

Get widget