Wood Buffalo National Park


In 1954 a pilot fighting a forest fire in the Northwest Territories looked down and discovered one of the natural world’s most significant and hitherto secret places—the nesting site of the rare majestic whooping crane. It was deep inside a tract of wild impenetrable muskeg larger than Denmark in Wood Buffalo National Park.

He instantly recognized the glistening scarlet-crowned pair of snow-white birds and their chick. Once seen, they are unforgettable—five feet (1.6 m) high, North America’s tallest bird, with wingspreads up to eight feet (2.6 m)—unchanged since they evolved with the saber-toothed cat. Their bugling cry from yard-long (1 m) windpipes can be heard for miles. Formerly they nested across the continent. A number of factors, some natural, some human-caused, reduced their numbers to 15 in 1941 and scientists predicted their imminent extinction. But with protection here and elsewhere, on their Texas gulf coast wintering grounds and along their peril-fraught 2,500-mile (4,300-km) migration route, there are now more than 400 including 40 breeding pairs, and the outlook is more encouraging.

Wood Buffalo, largest park in Canada and one of the largest in the world (17,295 square miles/44,807 km2), was created in 1922 to protect one of the world’s last free-roaming herds of wood bison which now numbers some 2,500. Its subarctic wilderness of boreal forest, sand dunes, shallow lakes, marshes, and meandering tree-lined streams contains the largest undisturbed grass and sedge meadows in North America.

 Whooping cranes are America’s most beloved endangered species, partly for their majestic, snow-white beauty and ringing call, that of “no mere bird,” said naturalist Aldo Leopold, but “symbol of our untamable past”—and partly their perilfraught lives. Twice yearly these tallest North American birds, standing five feet (1.5 m) with eight-foot (2.6 m) wingspans, fly 2,500 hazardous miles (4,300 km) between remote nesting grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, threatened by industrial development, and winter quarters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, vulnerable to passing tankers’ oil spills. In between they are still occasionally shot or die colliding with power lines. Still, their numbers, once down to 15, at recent count showed 422.

Whooping cranes are America’s most beloved endangered species, partly for their majestic, snow-white beauty and ringing call, that of “no mere bird,” said naturalist Aldo Leopold, but “symbol of our untamable past”—and partly their perilfraught lives. Twice yearly these tallest North American birds, standing five feet (1.5 m) with eight-foot (2.6 m) wingspans, fly 2,500 hazardous miles (4,300 km) between remote nesting grounds in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park, threatened by industrial development, and winter quarters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, vulnerable to passing tankers’ oil spills. In between they are still occasionally shot or die colliding with power lines. Still, their numbers, once down to 15, at recent count showed 422.

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