The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife 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 130 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.
To provide protection and management for the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane, by restoring, improving, and maintaining nesting, feeding, and roosting habitat within the refuge.
To protect and conserve unique savanna habitat of south Mississippi.
To provide opportunities for environmental education and interpretation and wildlife-dependent recreation to refuge visitors.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane Recovery Plan was originally written in 1976, and amended in 1979 and 1984; the current approved version is dated September 6, 1991. It states: “The recovery objective is to maintain a genetically viable, stable, self-sustaining, free-living Mississippi sandhill crane population.”
Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge was eventually established on November 25, 1975, with the purchase of 1,749 acres of land from The Nature Conservancy. The refuge was established under the authority of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-205), which calls for the federal government:
“...to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth...” (16 U.S.C. 1533, 87 Stat. 885). Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge 12
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge is the first in the country for which the Endangered Species Act was used as its establishing legislation. Additional purposes of the refuge are found in the Fish and Wildlife Act and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act:
“... for the development, advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish and wildlife resources....” 16 U.S.C. 742f(a)(4) (Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956)
“... for the benefit of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in performing its activities and services. Such acceptance may be subject to the terms of any restrictive or affirmative covenant, or condition of servitude....” 16 U.S.C. 742f(b)(1) (Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956)
“... conservation, management, and restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans...
” 16 U.S.C. 668dd(a)(2) (National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act)
Congressional action in 1978 provided an appropriation of $4 million to the U.S. Department of Transportation to acquire the lands in the interchange area, which would become part of the national wildlife refuge. Staffing of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge began in January 1978. In 1997, $9.7 million of Land and Water Conservation funds were also appropriated for land acquisition (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2005).
The only formal objectives for the refuge were included in a one-page master plan published in 1981.
These objectives were:
- - To provide protection and management for the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane, by restoring, improving, and maintaining nesting, feeding, and roosting habitat within the refuge.
- - To protect and conserve unique savanna habitat of south Mississippi.
- - To provide opportunities for environmental education and interpretation and wildlife-dependent recreation to refuge visitors.
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane Recovery Plan was originally written in 1976, and amended in 1979 and 1984; the current approved version is dated September 6, 1991. It states:
“The recovery objective is to maintain a genetically viable, stable, self-sustaining, free-living Mississippi sandhill crane population.”
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.
Other Facilities in this Complex
Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is managed as part of the Gulf Coast Complex. A National Wildlife Refuge Complex is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas or other refuge conservation areas that are primarily managed from a central office location. Refuges are grouped into a complexbecause they occur in a similar ecological region, such as a watershed or specific habitat type, and have a related purpose and management needs. Typically, a project leader or complex manager oversees the general management of all refuges within the complex and refuge managers are responsible for operations at specific refuges. Supporting staff, composed of administrative, law enforcement, refuge manager, biological, fire, visitor services, and maintenance professionals, are centrally located and support all refuges within the complex.
Other refuges in the Gulf Coast Complex include: Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge Complex headquarters is located at 7200 Crane Lane, Gautier, MS 39553.