Kohlers Fly to the Aid of Endangered Swans and Cranes

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1987

Wisconsin industrialist Terry Kohler and his wife Mary are both nature lovers and pilots, so when their governor and friend Tommy Thompson called them to ask if they would help the state Department of Natural Resources with a project to reintroduce the endangered trumpeter swan to the eastern U.S., they quickly agreed. They flew their company’s business jet to Alaska and picked up a clutch of eggs removed from the nests of remaining wild trumpeters (the largest waterfowl on earth, with a wingspan exceeding eight feet). These were whisked to the Milwaukee County Zoo for a captive breeding program, and the deed was repeated every spring for years, eventually resulting in the successful reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the midwestern flyway. After being absent for a century, there are now more than 5,000 of these huge native birds migrating in this central corridor.

The year after their first trumpeter-egg trip, the president of the International Crane Foundation asked them to undertake a similar trip to bring down precious whooping crane eggs from a different part of Alaska for a similar captive-breeding program. Whoopers were down to just two dozen birds in existence at one point, and this effort increased their numbers to several hundred, though many risks to the bird remain. Released captive-raised birds had to be taught to migrate from the refuges in Wisconsin where they were reintroduced—which was eventually done, at Terry Kohler’s suggestion, by leading them south with ultra-light airplanes. Kohler also created special controlled-temperature incubators in which substantial numbers of crane and trumpeter swan eggs could be safely flown long distances.

Other private donors were also crucial to these programs. The cost of rearing and releasing one whooping crane is estimated to be more than $100,000, all told. A majority of the budget of crucial groups like the Trumpeter Swan Recovery Project and the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership has come from donations. In Louisiana, where the latest important efforts to preserve whoopers are centered, the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has requested several million dollars from private individuals and companies to support a 15-year project.

In addition to offering in-kind assistance in the form of many hundreds of hours of jet, propeller plane, and helicopter transport and aerial surveying over three decades, the Kohlers also became major donors to the International Crane Foundation, Operation Migration, the Whooping Crane Conservation Association (which buys critical habitat, among other contributions), and other avian conservation groups. They contributed as well to efforts to protect the threatened Siberian crane. While transporting eggs around the globe, one of Kohler’s planes became the first private jet to cross Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.