Jeff Mundy [00:00:00] 2008 and '9 there was a very bad drought which caused the freshwater inflows into Aransas Bay to essentially drop to zero. And that, that bay system and estuary system is in between having freshwater and the salinity of the open ocean. It's in between those two, in its normal cycles.
Jeff Mundy [00:00:29] And when the drought came, GBRA, and when I say that it's the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, GBRA would not release any water from behind its dams to maintain freshwater inflows into the estuary. Normally those would be there, absent the dams, and then San Antonio River Authority, same thing. They had the ability to release freshwater that they were impounding behind dams and maintain the normal, natural flows, but they chose not to do that. So it cut off all freshwater inflow into Aransas Bay.
Jeff Mundy [00:01:08] Well, the consequence of that is that the salinity in the bay actually started climbing rapidly. As the water evaporates, it leaves the salt behind in the estuary system. And ultimately over the course of the following summer and winter, the salinity in the estuary system increased to where it was higher salinity, i.e. saltier, in that estuary system than it was out in even the open ocean in the Gulf of Mexico.
Jeff Mundy [00:01:41] That caused the crab population to collapse. And they literally were just, they could not survive in that hypersaline environment. So they literally were killed by the act of the river authorities not allowing freshwater inflows to go into the estuary.
Jeff Mundy [00:02:04] The blue crab is one of the two really key building blocks of the food on which whooping cranes rely. They can eat multiple other things. But blue crabs are far and away their primary food source.
Jeff Mundy [00:02:20] The other one that is a real cornerstone of their diet is wolfberry. Well, as the drought cycled, so the fruit production for the wolfberries fell to essentially none at the same time.
Jeff Mundy [00:02:34] So their two real core building blocks were taken away from them. They literally had lack of adequate food sufficiency.
Jeff Mundy [00:02:46] Then the third kind of critical component that set the stage for the lawsuit was the lack of fresh drinking water, which they do, like all living animals, drink fresh water, need fresh water, just like humans do every single day. People can go a long time without adequate food resources, but only a matter of days without fresh water. And the whooping cranes are the same.
Jeff Mundy [00:03:15] So those three components that are just fundamental to maintaining their existence in life, the crabs, the wolfberries, and fresh water, were all knocked out from under them. So that set the stage for an Endangered Species Act case, oh, because what happened next was they literally started starving to death on the refuge.
Jeff Mundy [00:03:39] There was a well-known refuge biologist, named Tom Stehn, who would fly in a small airplane, like a little Cessna airplane, and he would literally fly up and down every week where all the territories of the cranes were and tally them on his map. And he could keep track of every family and know how many adults and how many juveniles there were. And juveniles are usually distinguished: they have different coloration pattern than the adults do. They have a rusty head on a white body, so they stick out. So he could count how many adult pairs there were, the male and a female, and then one or two juveniles, per territory.
Jeff Mundy [00:04:22] And what he saw over that winter was the number of birds was declining steadily. They started missing from territories and disappearing. And by the time the winter was over, his conservative estimate was that somewhere in the mid thirties of adult whooping cranes had died due to starvation or were missing.
Jeff Mundy [00:04:49] And it sometimes gets misreported as there was a hard number in the lawsuit. I can't remember right off the cuff. what it was, let's say thirty one or six or something. But the actual number he was saying was it was at least that number. He was calculating only missing adults because the young birds, as I mentioned earlier, start wandering off and looking for alternate territories to set up their own family territory.
Jeff Mundy [00:05:16] In talking to Tom, off the record, his real estimate was there was probably more in the range of the more than 50 or even 60 whooping cranes that died over that winter due to starvation.