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Two long-necked grey birds with red markings on their heads near a small pond
Information icon A pair of Mississippi sandhill cranes forage in a private pasture that is permanently protected as crane habitat by an NRCS Agricultural Land Easement. Photo by Jason Keenan, NRCS.

Service’s Coastal Program Helps Recover Mississippi Sandhill Crane

Mississippi has several rare birds, but one of the rarest is the Mississippi sandhill crane, with only about 125 individuals left in the wild. This non-migratory subspecies of the sandhill crane once lived in coastal Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and western Florida, but the only place they currently exist in the wild is in and around the 19,000-acre Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, Mississippi.

The refuge was established in 1975 to help prevent these striking birds from becoming extinct, and it was the very first national wildlife refuge established specifically for an endangered species. When the refuge was established and a recovery plan written for the Mississippi sandhill cranes, it was noted that they used private properties off of the refuge, and that they especially used pastures.

A blueish-gray bird with black markings on its wings and face standing on a fence post
This loggerhead shrike is among the many grassland birds and uncommon species using these properties. Photo by Robert Smith, Wildlife Mississippi.

Over the last 45 years, the habitats around the refuge have changed. The population growth rate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast has increased, even with negative impacts from Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Pastures made great sites to develop residential communities. Other pastures were converted to woodland either through intentional reforestation or laissez-faire natural succession. Prescribed fire has become increasingly uncommon. The remaining pastures and natural areas around the refuge have become increasingly important to the Mississippi sandhill cranes and other wildlife.

“The remaining pastures around the refuge have become increasingly important to the crane pairs utilizing those areas,” said Scott Hereford, refuge wildlife biologist.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program provided support to the non-profit organization Wildlife Mississippi enabling an effort to work with private landowners whose lands are utilized by Mississippi sandhill cranes. Utilizing known crane location and county tax records, a list of almost 200 landowners whose properties are likely used by Mississippi sandhill cranes was developed. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) enabled Wildlife Mississippi and the Mississippi Land Trust to develop an outreach effort USDA Farm Bill assistance for private landowners. Direct mail, flyers in feed stores, and cold calling were used to inform landowners about a Farm Bill and easement workshop for private landowners.

A little over two dozen landowners are likely eligible for a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) as a Grassland of Special Environmental Significance because their pastures are utilized by the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane. These lands also support other uncommon wildlife and habitats that includes gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, bald eagles, vermillion flycatchers, and pitcher plant bogs.

The first ALE for pastures near MSCNWR was a 75-.4-acre pasture utilized by cranes adjacent to the refuge that closed in March 2020. This pasture was a priority pasture because it was used by three different families of cranes during the year for foraging and one family used it to raise their colt in the late spring and early summer. An additional three tracts totaling another 162 acres are scheduled to close later this year. These easements ensure that the habitat will not only be available for Mississippi sandhill cranes and other wildlife in perpetuity, but also that these lands can be productive agricultural lands and offer important green space for future generations. Additional easements are being pursued as matching funds are located. Easement funding to date has come from landowner donations, NRCS, NFWF, Mississippi Power, USFWS Coastal Program, USFWS Private Lands Program, Wildlife Mississippi, and Mississippi Land Trust.

As the Service and Wildlife Mississippi worked with landowners hosting cranes and developed relationships, saw management needs on the properties. Like other properties in the area, there was a history of fire exclusion, a lack of prescribed fire, and a heavy presence of invasive plants. We provided land management advice and technical support, such as herbicide sprayer calibration and locating contractors to install firebreaks.

Another NFWF grant with support from the refuge, Wildlife Mississippi, Mississippi Land Trust, Student Conservation Association, Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, and private landowners brought a Veteran’s Fire Crew to the area for a 90-day period for two consecutive years. These crews burned 16,736 acres, including some private lands utilized by Mississippi sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises. This program continues under NFWF’s Gulf Conservation Fund.

Three firefighters in yellow safety gear supervise a controlled burn
Veterans fire crew members assist with a prescribed burn on private land. Photo by Robert Smith, Wildlife Mississippi.

The Service’s Coastal Program is currently providing cost-share assistance to private landowners whose lands are utilized by cranes to further help control invasive species, rehabilitate overgrown pastures, restore pine flatwoods, and install and freshen firebreaks.

These small steps in habitat management not only improve Mississippi sandhill crane individual survival and reproduction, but also help increase social awareness within the human community about the importance of native habitats, native species, and active land management.

Contact

Paul Necaise, Coastal Program Coordinator
paul_necaise@fws.gov, (228) 493-6631

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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