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Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge

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Gautier, Mississippi


Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1975, is one of nearly 500 national wildlife refuges administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The refuge consists of three separate land units totaling 19,000 plus acres. The Gautier, Ocean Springs and Fontainebleau units all lie within the limited nesting range of the endangered Mississippi sandhill crane. The refuge objectives are: (1) to provide protection and management for the cranes, (2) to protect and preserve unique savanna plant communities required by the cranes, and (3) to provide environmental education, interpretation and wildlife oriented recreation to refuge visitors.

Why a Refuge Here?

Once sandhill cranes existed in small separate colonies along the Gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Now they nest only in Mississippi and Florida. The Mississippi sandhill crane was recognized as a separate subspecies in 1972 and in 1973 was placed on the endangered species list. Historically, the Mississippi sandhill crane was found in semi-open, wet savanna habitat that was prevalent in southern Jackson County, Savannas are meadows established on acidic water-logged soil, unfit for most land use. Sharing the habitat with grazing cattle and sheep, the crane survived in the isolation afforded by the unproductive land. By the mid-1950's, however, timber companies had purchased the savanna tracts and converted them into pine tree plantations. In addition, factories, housing , highways and other commercial developments threatened the crane's existence. Crane habitat destruction continues today but with acquisition of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, habitat restoration has begun.

What Has The U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service Done For Cranes?

Because land acquisition alone does not insure the survival of the Mississippi sandhill crane, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed land, crane and public use management programs.

Land Management

Restoring the habitat to its previous open savanna state is a long-term, multi-faceted program. During your visit, look for signs of land clearing, timber operation, burning, water control and farming. Because dense pine woods are unacceptable nesting and feeding habitat for cranes, removal of trees by bulldozing and cutting are used to improve and expand breeding and feeding areas. Once the land is cleared, prescribed burning (the careful use of fire to burn vegetation) effectively maintains the open grasslands. Burning is a particularly efficient method of removing dense, shrubby vegetation. Cranes pick up their food above ground or probe just below the soil surface and will readily utilize recently burned areas. The fire management program at the refuge burns one-third of its acreage annually.

When the land was used for timber production, the owners attempted to drain the savannas by digging ditches. Drainage promoted the growth of pine and brush cover in what had been nesting and feeding areas. Today, water control structures and road dikes throughout the refuge hold water on the land to encourage the growth of unique vegetation that once covered much of the southern Jackson County. Plants such as sundews, club mosses, pitcher plants, pipeworts and orchids have become more abundant.

Planting food plots insures the cranes receive proper nutrition to supplement their natural diet. Chug, ryegrass, and winter wheat are available to the cranes in various areas throughout the refuge. The birds heavily utilize these crops during the winter when other preferred foods such as fruits, roots, insects, worms, and amphibians become scarce.

Crane Management

One of the first questions a visitor asks about Mississippi sandhill cranes is "How many are there?". Population counts presently estimate the flock at approximately 120 individuals. More importantly, there are less than a dozen breeding pairs. The sandhill crane is a long-lived bird (from 20 to 30 years) but rarely lays more than two eggs per year. Cranes mate for life but a pair may not nest or successfully raise young every year. In other words, crane parents do not produce many chicks, thereby making population increases a slow process.

To enhance natural production, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a captive breeding/restocking program. Since 1965, eggs from wild cranes have been sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center to be incubated and hatched. The chicks remain at the center in Laurel, MD, to form a captive breeding flock. Since 1980, offspring from this flock have been released annually on the refuge as part of a restocking effort. These released cranes currently make up over 3/4 of the flock, and some have successfully entered the breeding population.

Public Use Management

Public Use on national wildlife refuges, in general, is encouraged. However, since the primary objective of this refuge is to protect an endangered species and increase it's population size, public access to much of the refuge is restricted. Use of the visitor center and designated foot trails is welcomed. Guided tours to view cranes are offered in January and February, but require advanced reservations.

How Do I Get There and Where Do I Stay?

The Mississippi Sandhill National Wildlife Refuge is located in Jackson County, Mississippi, three miles north of Gautier. The headquarters/visitor center is located one-half mile north of I-10, Exit 61, on the Gautier-Vancleave road. The center is open Monday through Friday, 8:00AM-3:00PM. No camping or picnicking is allowed on the refuge, although both facilities are available nearby. The Gulf Islands National Seashore, administered by the National Park Service in Ocean Springs, might be of particular interest to those visitors oriented toward birding and other wildlife experiences. Motel and restaurant accommodations, gas and grocery supplies are available in Gautier, Pascagoula, Ocean Springs and Biloxi.

What Is There To Do?

Because there are so few cranes and the refuge is charged with protecting them from excessive disturbance, you cannot be assured of seeing a crane on your first or tenth visit. However, you can learn about them and their unique habitat at the visitor center. Slide and/or video programs are available weekdays, highlighting the refuge, wildflowers, crane nesting and more.

A 3/4 mile nature trail adjacent to the visitor center travels past savanna and bayou habitat. Plant life is abundant by the trail, particularly in spring when the wildflowers that characterize the area are in bloom. A variety of orchids, pipeworts, and dewberries add color to the savanna grasses and pine. Look for the unique carnivorous pitcher plants, sundews, and bladderworts.

The alert visitor can also see and hear signs of wildlife. Birdlife is moderately abundant and most diverse during the fall and spring migration. Wading birds visit the bayou, songbirds frequent the trees and shrub vegetation, and harriers and red-tailed hawks hunt over the savannas in winter. Although less visible, be alert for signs of other wildlife such as mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Look for tracks of white-tailed deer, raccoon, and fox. Listen for the raucous bugling of the cranes, as well the chorus of cricket frogs or the grunting of the elusive pig frog. Be cautious around standing water or fallen logs where snakes may be present. The cottonmouth, dusky pygmy rattler, copperheads, and coral snakes all reside on the refuge.

Groups are encouraged to utilize the area as an outdoor classroom. Large groups should notify the refuge of their intended visit. Some materials are also available for off-refuge use. By request, refuge personnel may be available to give presentations during or after hours and on or off the refuge.

What Are The Rules?

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge regulations are designed to protect the cranes, to preserve natural, scenic and wildlife values and to enhance public safety and enjoyment of the refuge. The following is a general summary of refuge regulations:

You are invited to hike, photograph, and birdwatch on the trail during visitor center hours. We hope that your visit to Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is an enjoyable one.

For more information contact:

            Refuge Manager
            Mississippi Sandhill Crane
            7200 Crane Lane
            Gautier, MS 39553
            Phone: (601) 497-6322

This resource is based on the following source:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 08/92. Mississippi Sandhill Crane National 
     Wildlife Refuge Checklist. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Unpaginated.
This resource should be cited as:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 08/92. Mississippi Sandhill Crane National 
     Wildlife Refuge Checklist. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Unpaginated.
     Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     http://www.npwrc.usgs.govsandinfo.htm 
     (Version 01NOV98).

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