Sandhill cranes are among the oldest and most endangered of all surviving bird species. The only wild population of Mississippi Sandhill Cranes lives on the refuge which bears its name, founded specifically to protect these cranes and restore their wet pine savanna habitat. One man’s concern, courage and persistence stand out in the battle to save the cranes and establish the refuge - Jacob M. (Jake) Valentine.
A tall, imposing man born in Wisconsin in 1917, Valentine earned the Army’s Silver Star for heroism under fire in New Guinea during World War II, when he swam a river several times carrying wounded comrades. He studied with Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin and then went directly to Slade national Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota as refuge manager. After stops at Chincoteague (Va.) and Loxhatchee (Fla.) Refuges, Valentine became wildlife biologist for the Gulf Coast Region. He lived in Lafayette, Louisiana, for almost 40 years before his death in 2000.
Valentine’s investigation and court testimony delayed completion of Highway 10 in Louisiana when the National Wildlife Foundation challenged the potential loss of critical crane habitat .The settlement of the case designated 2,000 acres near an I-10 interchange as one of the first parts of Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge.
In 1981, Valentine choked back tears as the first nine cranes from a captive breeding program in Maryland were released into the wild at Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge. Thirty years later, the Mississippi sandhill crane population has grown from 30 birds to 135, with 25 breeding pairs on the refuge. Valentine said to one of his colleagues, “These last wet pine savannas are beautiful, wonderous places, but without the cranes, they would have lost their soul.” He would be pleased to know that almost all of the cranes survived Hurricane Katrina.
In 1996, Valentine received the first Walkinshaw Crane Conservation Award from the North American Crane Working Group for lifetime achievement in crane conservation. Known for his durability in the field, his tireless crane research and prolific publications, Valentine was a magnet and mentor for many young biologists well into his 70s.
Jim Kurth, deputy chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, remembers walking 40 miles with Valentine along the Chandelier Island chain in the Gulf of Mexico, ever impressed with Valentine’s meticulous field notes. Valentine kept his professional knowledge current and had an intense interest in developing young biologists. “He challenged you to grow professionally,” recalls Kurth, “He was a consummate naturalist, but he also enjoyed a fine glass of port with a cigar. I don’t remember every orchid I saw with him, but I remember his generosity, his laughter and his love of life.”