Mississippi sandhill cranes are among the rarest birds in North America. But they aren’t as rare as they once were because of the Endangered Species Act and people like Jake Valentine and Scott Hereford.

Valentine was a long–time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. He recognized in the 1970s, just as Interstate 10 was being planned across the southern United States, that the bird faced extinction if its habitat was not preserved. So he persevered through that era’s “cranes and lanes” controversy to ensure that the bird was accommodated and that Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge was established.

Hereford has been a biologist at that refuge since 1990. Refuge manager Maury Bedford calls Hereford “a world–renowned expert on the bird who does a phenomenal job.” Hereford has helped increase the Mississippi sandhill crane population from about 40 in the mid–’70s to about 110 today (including 25 breeding pairs). He estimates that without the Endangered Species Act there might be five individuals left.

The Mississippi sandhill crane is one of six subspecies of sandhill crane. It occurs in the wild in just one county, Jackson, tucked between the Gulf of Mexico and the Alabama border in extreme southeastern Mississippi.

This crane is distinguished from sandhill cranes of the Great Lakes, Plains, the Rocky Mountains and Canada genetically and in three observable ways. It is non–migratory. It is darker gray with a more visible white cheek patch. It favors coastal prairie and wet pine savanna rather than marsh.

The Mississippi sandhill crane stands about four feet tall and, like other sandhill cranes, has a bald red crown; flies with its neck outstretched; has a loud bugle call; has a pre–breeding, sub–adult period of three to eight years; mates for life; rears its young for 10 months; and cannot perch in a tree.

The refuge’s primary roles in the crane’s recovery are to enhance habitat and augment the population with captive–reared juveniles. It does the former by using prescribed fire and mechanical treatments to maintain prairie and longleaf pine savannas, by creating shallow roosting ponds and by growing supplemental food. It does the latter by releasing about a dozen young birds onto the refuge each year in partnership with Louisiana’s Audubon Species Survival Center and Florida’s White Oak Conservation Center.

With encouragement from refuge manager Bedford, the local community increasingly is embracing the cranes and the ecotourism they represent. “Welcome to Gautier, MS” signs now feature a crane image, and the city’s new slogan is “Nature’s Playground.” In addition, power companies have agreed to install reflective bird averters on some lines, and adjacent landowners have grown to appreciate the cranes.

Challenges remain, though. Foremost are human population growth and its offshoots. Power lines and vehicles—including those on nearby I–10—imperil cranes. Development fragments precious habitat and complicates habitat enhancement, especially prescribed burning. Predation by bobcats, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes and others is normal, but it has a disproportionately negative effect because of the cranes’ small population and limited habitat.

Still, recovering the Mississippi sandhill crane, whose range once stretched hundreds of miles along the Gulf Coast, is well worth the effort, according to Bedford and Hereford.

“Throughout history, cranes have been viewed as symbols of royalty,” says Bedford, who is leaving the refuge to become Southeast Region assistant deputy refuge chief. “Cranes have been painted on Egyptian hieroglyphics and other places as symbols of magic. Once you see and hear them, you’ll understand why we work so hard to recover the species.”

Herford’s reasoning is more fundamental.

“It seems like I naturally root for the underdog, and this population hung on in one county in coastal Mississippi after others in Louisiana and Alabama disappeared,” he says. “It has been very satisfying to restore habitat and have the cranes come in and use it for nesting, roosting and feeding. ‘Build it and they will come.’ ”