In at the Start
By Jim Kurth
Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System
We recently focused our Refuge Update newsletter on some of our newer refuges, and it brought back great memories of the early days of my career when I had the opportunity to work on three new refuges. I began my career with the Fish and Wildlife Service in late 1979 at Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. The first land was purchased in 1975; staff showed up two years later.
When I arrived, land acquisition was progressing quickly. The staff had grown to six, all of us younger than 35. We used an old FEMA trailer as our office. I shared one of the bedrooms as an office with the other assistant manager. We couldn’t stand up at the same time because our chairs would collide and trap our legs under the old battleship gray, military surplus desks.
We didn’t care. We had important work to do.
The cranes numbered fewer than 40 birds. They had been pushed to the brink of extinction because of ill-conceived plans to drain the Gulf coastal savanna, exclude fire, and convert them to slash pine plantations. In 1981, there were only two nests and only one chick was known to have fledged. We began the slow process of restoring habitat and reintroducing fire.
The first release of cranes raised from a captive flock at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center took place in 1981. When I left Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge in 1983, we didn’t know whether we could save the birds from extinction, but I felt our work might make the difference.
Today the picture is much brighter. A record 39 nests were found this year. The refuge has a sophisticated fire program that has greatly improved habitat, and an outstanding biological program that not only tracks how the cranes are doing, but has also learned a lot about other creatures that live in the savannas and wetlands.
I know budgets are a real problem for folks in the field, but it’s hard not to recognize the tremendous progress that has been made. I had a lot of fun back then, working with great people for a great cause. I am proud of my many colleagues who have carried on the work over the past 30 years – at Mississippi Sandhill Crane Refuge, and at Bogue Chitto and Bon Secour Refuges, which we administered from Mississippi immediately after they were established.
Working on a new refuge reminds me of being a parent: You never tire of watching your kids grow, and you marvel at the things they accomplish.
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