Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the National Wildlife Federation, water wells damaged during Hurricane Harvey and needed during droughts by endangered whooping cranes will be repaired. The wells having been drilled over the years, on and off Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, replenish freshwater ponds the cranes drink from.
Wade Harrell, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ whooping crane recovery coordinator and James Dodson, project manager for the San Antonio Bay Partnership, hope to have the repairs completed by the end of November. Some whooping cranes will have reached the refuge by then, after migrating from Wood Buffalo National Park and if the repairs disturb the cranes, then they’ll be delayed.
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.
AUSTWELL — The panorama from the 40-foot observation deck at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is breathtaking. Stands of live oak dissolve to prairie grasses, which give way to coastal marshes en route to San Antonio Bay.
Look a little closer, though. There’s disorder amid the beauty.
A wooden platform has been blown or washed hundreds of yards away from its footing. A line of debris rings the brush along the service road, indicating the terminus of the storm surge. And nestled in the live oak grove, hundred-year-old trees with leaves stripped from their branches have been knocked over like bowling pins, their roots exposed.
“Nature’s resilient, and I know this area will recover,” refuge manager Joe Saenz said. “But the trees, once they’re gone, they’re gone. And trees here took a beating.”
The impact of Hurricane Harvey is everywhere — like it is in many places throughout Texas’ Gulf Coast. Here, the storm has placed the lone wintering ground for one of world’s most famous endangered species, the whooping crane, under threat.
The heart of the refuge, a 45,000-acre tract on the Blackjack Peninsula south of the tiny town of Austwell, is about 20 miles from the human tragedies found in Rockport, Port Aransas and Bayside. Harvey’s eyewall, bringing 130 mph winds, passed between those communities and the refuge more than two weeks ago.
Satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate a
good deal of beach erosion in another part of the refuge, on Matagorda Island, the barrier that protects the peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico. And as Saenz drives to the observation deck, he gestures to Dagger Point, a part of the shoreline that lost 20 yards from storm erosion.
Even so, things don’t look too bleak. At first glance, the marshes appear to be in good shape. And that’s crucial.
The marshes are the sanctuary for the whooping crane, and home to one of North America’s greatest successes in wildlife conservation.
Friends of the Wild Whoopers, (FOTWW) has had several inquiries about what effects Hurricane Harvey may have had to the wild whooping cranes’ wintering habitat on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
The whooping cranes of the wild flock and their new fledglings are still in Canada on their nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park. Mike Keizer, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada told FOTWW, “Hope all goes well in Texas. Glad the Whooping Cranes are still here.”
They won’t start their fall migration until the later part of next month and the first whoopers may arrive at Aransas for the winter right after the middle of October, with the remaining whoopers following until the middle of December, which is after the hurricane season.
What salt water from the storm surge that has gotten into the brackish bays will normally be flushed out with fresh flood water flowing in from upstream. Also with the predicted rainfall of 1 to 3 feet, the system should restore itself soon. It is too early to determine if there was any habitat loss and the priority now it to keep the area’s citizens safe, out of harm’s way and back into their homes and/or rebuilding.
Whatever the damage, if any, to the wild flock’s habitat, the flock will endure and survive as it has done over the years.
FOTWW and everyone is concerned about the refuge and surrounding area and our thoughts and prayers go out to all those citizens affected by Hurricane Harvey. We hope that there is no loss of life and little to no damage to property and habitat.
FOTWW will keep everyone updated as we get information.