About the Refuge
Look in any direction at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge and you look back to an earlier time along the Gulf Coast. The landscape is flat, like a prairie. The ground, blanketed with impervious clay soil, is waterlogged and acidic. Yet here, a rich, colorful blend of rare orchids, carnivorous plants and other ground cover thrive under the scattered pines in one of the most species-rich plant communities in North America. This is the wet pine savanna ecosystem – the critical habitat for endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes, migratory songbirds and waterfowl, and many other wildlife species. The refuge protects and restores the last remaining wet pine savanna in the United States, and thus, ensures the survival of the rare and magnificent Mississippi sandhill crane.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is part of the Gulf Coast Refuge Complex, which includes Grand Bay NWR and Bon Secour NWR.
The refuge was established in 1975 under authority of the Endangered Species Act to protect the critically endangered Mississippi sandhill cranes and their unique, and itself endangered, wet pine savanna habitat.
The crane population, at that time only 30-35 birds, is currently at approximately 110 birds. Through captive rearing and reintroduction to the area as well as wild birds nesting in the savannas, the crane population continues to grow.
The refuge also protects and restores the last large expanses of wet pine savanna, primarily through the use of prescribed fire. The wet pine savanna is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the U.S. with more than 30 plants found in a square meter of land.
The Heritage of Conservation
Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR was established in 1975 in Jackson County for the protection and recovery of it's namesake and the restoration of the wet pine savanna.
Historically, the Mississippi sandhill crane was found in semi-open, wet savanna habitat that was once prevalent in southern Jackson County. Savannas are meadows established on acidic water-logged soil, unsuitable for most land uses. Sharing the habitat with grazing cattle and sheep, the crane survived in the isolation provided by the "unproductive" land.
By the mid-1950's, timber companies purchased the savanna tracts and converted them into pine plantations. Agricultural and industrial development, including World War II ship building, fire suppression on the pine plantations and other forestry practices destroyed much of the native landscape.
The population decline of the Mississippi sandhill crane reflects the disappearance of the pine savannas that once abounded in the region. When the refuge was first established, about 75% of the crane savannas had been eliminated.
At present, only 5% or less of the original savanna habitat that once supported the cranes remains on the Gulf Coastal Plain. For this reason, Mississippi sandhill cranes now occur only on the refuge named for them and adjacent private lands in the vicinity of the refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started captive breeding the cranes at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1965 to protect the subspecies during habitat restoration work and to provide stock for reintroduction.
The Service added the Mississippi sandhill crane to the endangered species list in 1973 and Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR was the first refuge established under the Endangered Species Act, which calls for the government "...to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth..." (16 U.S.C. 1533, 87 Stat. 885).
The Creation of the Refuge
The true story of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR involves the hard work and dedication of a leader in conservation. Jacob M. (Jake) Valentine, Jr. was a champion of the Mississippi sandhill crane and "father" of the Refuge.
Jake was born May 18, 1917 in Racine, Wisconsin. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, assigned to the 32nd Division in New Guinea. He received a Silver Star at age 26 for heroism in action at Saidor where, under Japanese fire, he risked his life swimming a river several times carrying wounded comrades
He received his MA in Zoology in 1950 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Upon graduation, he joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and served as refuge manager at several refuges. Eventually, he became Regional Wildlife Biologist for the Gulf Coast Region, making Lafayette his home for over 39 years.
One of his early assignments was an investigation into the effects of the building of Interstate 10 on the sandhill crane population in Jackson County.
With severe habitat decline and other problems, he realized the cranes were at great risk and called for a refuge. In the 1970s during the ensuing "cranes and lanes" controversy, stoppage of I-10 construction, and case in federal court, Jake's expertise, courage, and determination led eventually to the creation of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.
Without him, there would simply have been no refuge. He continued his involvement with the cranes and the refuge after his retirement in the 1980s until his passing, a period spanning over 30 years.
Jake won the Walkinshaw Award for lifetime achievement in crane conservation in 1996. His durability in the field was legendary even into his mid-70s.
Today, Mississippi Sandhill Crane recovery efforts continue, but the bird still carries the description of 'the rarest bird in North America'.
Although the refuge and I-10 were both created, only 20,000 acres of the original crane habitat exist along the gulf coast. The good news is that the refuge was created and the population of less than 30 birds has grown to over 100. As the refuge and adjacent communities continue to work together, the crane recovery program has a definite chance of success.