Wildlife refuge in bad shape after hurricane

By Jessica PriestVictoria Advocate

Wildlife Refuge

Whooping Cranes on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. © Photo by Kevin Sims

Damaged marshland might displace whooping cranes this fall.

Wade Harrell, who is coordinating the endangered species’ recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got his first look at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday after Category 4 Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.

“There was an initial sense of shock and awe,” Harrell said, describing how the live oak trees many visitors are accustomed to seeing were stripped of their leaves by strong winds. “It was a lot to process on top of all the work that needs to be done.”

In the marshes, Harrell found a significant amount of debris. Some of the debris was man-made and might take months to remove.

“There were refrigerators in there. Stuff that probably came out of people’s houses in Rockport,” he said.

Before some debris can be removed, the fish and wildlife service will consult with its experts on contaminants.

“It’s sort of like doctors. When they are sworn in, they promise to do no harm. We want to make sure we’re not doing additional harm to the refuge versus what’s already been done. We want to make sure we go in a slow and methodical way,” he said.

Hurricane Harvey’s storm surge also affected the refuge’s freshwater ponds. It has as many as 70 that the whooping cranes could drink from in the past.

The San Antonio Bay shoreline that borders the refuge has also eroded, he said.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge covers about 115,000 acres, but the challenge the service faces in its cleanup effort is the refuge is not contiguous. Some parts abut private property, while others are only accessible by boat.

Although many animals call the refuge home, some visitors want to catch a glimpse of the tallest bird in North America, the whooping crane.

Standing at 5 feet, there were only 15 whooping cranes left in 1940. Now, there are more than 300 in the last naturally-occurring flock.

That flock is at Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park but will start migrating south next month.

In the fall and winter, the whooping cranes will forage for food on Texas’ coast, anywhere between Port Aransas to Port O’Connor.

“On any given year, probably about 50 percent of the population is within refuge boundaries,” Harrell said.

The refuge is closed, but Harrell said refuge manager, Joe Saenz, hopes to open a portion to the public as soon as possible.

“We know people are anxious to get out and see some of the changes that I described,” Harrell said.

The hurricane hit the refuge twice, once when it made landfall in Rockport about 48 miles away and then when it traveled back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The refuge is among eight closed because of the hurricane.

For updates on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, call 361-286-3559.

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