Jackson County

So what is the Sandhill Crane Refuge and can we move it, mayors ask

Young Mississippi sandhill cranes get first taste of freedom

A crane takes its first-ever flight in the background as Angie Dedrickson, wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, lets go of another crane after it's wing restraint has been taken off. Video is from 2013.
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A crane takes its first-ever flight in the background as Angie Dedrickson, wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, lets go of another crane after it's wing restraint has been taken off. Video is from 2013.

They don’t even know what they would be disturbing.

But new mayors, in a lunch interview with a local paper in Jackson County last week, suggested that swapping land with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge might be a good idea, so they could develop an Interstate 10 interchange in Gautier or move the refuge altogether. The refuge takes up 30 square miles of the county.

Having the crane refuge — a large, apparently vacant area of pines and grasslands — around an Interstate 10 interchange stops development there, creating what one mayor later described as an economic dead zone.

The issue came up far into the interview that was mostly about first-time mayors supporting each other and how hopeful they were about starting their new administrations.

Pascagoula’s Mayor Dane Maxwell, however, said he was already working on the refuge issue. After all, you can shoot these birds in other states, he said, implying the refuge is unnecessary.

Steve Shepard, with the Sierra Club, dug the sandhill crane comments out of the story and posted them on Facebook, garnering outrage.

The Sandhill Crane Refuge is protecting the last Mississippi Sandhill cranes on earth and maintaining a special Gulf Coast habitat that can be found almost nowhere else. There’s another legal fact that makes the Sandhill Crane Refuge particularly special — the court fight over the cranes went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was the first test of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

In the days since the group interview, Gautier Mayor Phil Torjusen explained to the Sun Herald that what he had in mind was some kind of friendly way to trade land with the refuge. He was interested in the two southern quadrants of the intersection, inside the city limits.

Torjusen is in real estate. Anything along I-10 is considered valuable, and he said when he clicks on the property around the Gautier-Vancleave intersection nothing comes up, “which usually means it’s government-owned,” he said.

That’s as far has he had gotten in his research on Tuesday. Since then, he has met some of the sandhill crane staff at City Hall at a reception for a mural about wet pine savannas that the refuge helped pay for. He’s going to meet them next week and finally visit a refuge that he said he has only driven by, but never entered or toured.

“I do understand that breed of bird out there is different than in other parts of the country,” he said.

A landmark decision

The primary animal they are protecting is a subspecies of sandhill crane that exists only in Mississippi. It doesn’t migrate. There are only 130 left.

But the refuge, established in 1975, also protects the last of a unique and disappearing type of land — the wet pine savanna. There is only 3 percent left in the country and most of it is on the refuge.

“Our focus is on the entire ecosystem,” said Jereme Phillips, who is over the refuge, “the wet pine savanna that almost disappeared on the Gulf Coast.”

This rare habitat is pitcher plant bogs and open, almost treeless grasslands with many species of birds and wildlife dependent on a grassland that is maintained by regular burning.

Walking the refuge is like walking back in time, he said. As the Coast developed, wildfires that cleared the savannas were suppressed.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the savannas were converted to the business of growing pine trees for sale. Planting and digging drainage ditches disrupted the natural water flow and this type of land went away.

A crane takes its first-ever flight in the background as Angie Dedrickson, wildlife biologist with the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, lets go of another crane after it's wing restraint has been taken off. Video is from 2013.

But also, what many don’t realize is that the Mississippi Sandhill crane court battle was a landmark legal case in the mid-1970s that validated the Endangered Species Act.

A long-time Jackson County attorney, who watched the process 45 years ago, said the refuge’s significance is beyond a county or even a state. For those who believe threatened or endangered animals should be saved, “it’s sacred ground.”

A special bird attracts

The crane’s nesting area was in the vicinity of the intersection the mayors are interested in developing.

Gautier-Vancleave Road at I-10 was Ground Zero in the long-ago legal battle that delayed construction of the interstate. The National Wildlife Federation and others challenged the U.S. highway department’s plans to plow through the nesting area.

A state biologist had studied the Mississippi Sandhill crane in the 1960s and confirmed a population of about 40 that nested in and around there.

How to develop that area went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which instead of hearing the case, simply gave a nod to the appeals court decision that supported the Endangered Species Act, especially its section that said federal agencies need to check in before they spend money on a project that would impact a threatened or endangered species, without protecting it somehow or ensuring the continued existence of the species.

And the refuge was born.

So how would one exchange that land?

The Jackson County attorney who watched the case said, “Getting the Endangered Species Act repealed is the only way you would get them to open that interchange.”

Sounds outrageous, but in these political times, maybe that’s not so far-fetched. Pascagoula’s new mayor claims solid ties with President Donald Trump.

Is there another option?

Gautier Mayor Torjusen said he had “a good healthy conversation” about the following scenario with people during his campaign.

What if Gautier — instead of going through years of wrangling to try to acquire land that is already preserved in order to build a strip mall or another gas station along I-10 — fully realized it has something that is one of a kind.

What if the county and city embraced the idea and they worked to divert drivers off I-10 to see a national refuge. Once off, they could lure them into visiting the surrounding towns and their businesses.

According to the refuge, besides local school tours, the refuge was host to 9,600 visitors last year.

Reed Guice, founder of the Guice Agency with years of consulting and public relations experience on the Coast, said he’s already talked with Pascagoula’s mayor since the ruckus started on Facebook and certainly doesn’t want to speak for Maxwell, but thinks he was able to present a different take on economic development and the refuge.

“I’ve been on a tour of the refuge with 25 people,” Guice said, “and everyone of them had between $2,000 and $3,000 hanging around their necks, the highest end optics possible.”

Guice was talking about birders and their binoculars. He said he rattled off expensive products and brand names that Maxwell was familiar with.

On second thought

“He’s certainly willing to give it another look,” Guice said. He also explained that sandhill cranes that migrate have huntable numbers in Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle and that can confuse a lot of people. But it’s not the same bird.

“These live right here in the pine savanna (and adjacent properties), the only place they live,” Guice said. “It’s even different from the subspecies that’s found in Florida and Alabama, which makes them really special. They are found nowhere on Earth, except in Mississippi.”

Maxwell was out of town this week. His spokesman said the comments about the refuge might have been more of a passing thought, “but could be explored more down the line.”

When the conversation got back around to Ocean Springs Mayor-elect Shea Dobson on Facebook, he replied, “I have no intention to move the refuge.”

It needs to be noted the federal government pays taxes to Jackson County and Gautier to help compensate for the loss of development.

But negotiating land or moving the birds?

Phillips with the refuge, diplomatically said this: “Our focus is on keeping our close relationship with Gautier by promoting nature tourism in the area. We have a visitor’s center, two nature trails and science education for thousands of local school children.

“We’re always looking for ways to expand recreation and education programs we offer the public in ways that can expand the local economy — nature tourism and other opportunities. There are a number of possible approaches. We’ve been working with them for a number of years on nature tourism for the area and the neighboring cities, with direct economic benefit.”