in Houston, Texas
Missing whooping cranes vex court weighing water suit against state of Texas
Thursday, Dec 08, 2011, 12:39PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
whooping crane

Call out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and the World Wide Bird Hotline. The fate of all surface water in Texas rests on the whereabouts of 19 missing cranes.

And if you think this isn’t possible, you haven’t been following a true-life case expected to continue through the week in federal court in Corpus Christi. The case features an environmental group, a room full of state lawyers and experts on the taxpayers’ dime, a judge who confesses to being an avid birder and a star witness who has testified, “These cranes are like my kids.”

Now let’s get this settled before we go any further. Nowhere in this story will there be any reference to fowl play.

A coastal area environmental group, The Aransas Project, filed suit in federal court against the state of Texas for what it says is the misallocation of the water from the Guadalupe and San Antonio river systems, according to a story in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

By committing this water in the middle of an extended drought to human beings, at least 23 cranes died over the winter of 2008-09 in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the Aransas Project contends.

The case so far has turned on the expert testimony of Tom Stehn, who has been crane counting for the federal wildlife service for 29 years in the refuge, a San Antonio Express-News account of the trial says.

Father Crane, or Mr. Crane as he has been mistakenly referred to several times, has been under heavy pressure by state attorneys to explain how he arrived at his death counts.

Stehn testified he made several passes in a low-flying plane, intimately familiar with the territory of each crane family. “This is not a survey,” Stehn said. “This is a census where you count every bird.”

The problem after landing was Stehn could not find 19 of the 23 crane carcasses. Still, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack refused to allow state attorneys to impugn Stehn’s reputation.

“This is the only human on Earth who has been counting these birds annually in this area,” Jack said to the lawyers on both sides of the whooping crane case. “He is ‘Mr. Crane.’”

Jack, fond as she and her husband, both birders, are of the cranes, told the court the case raised vexing issues. “In a drought, do you take from the farmers to give to the whooping cranes?”

And what about all those missing cranes, she asked aloud. “I just want to make sure they didn’t go to New Mexico — or to Antigua for the holidays.”
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of whooping crane by flickr user USFWS Endangered Species, used via a Creative Commons license.
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