AUSTWELL, Texas (AP) — 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.
The Dallas Morning News reports 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.”
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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 in late August.
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.
Without the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, whooping cranes would likely be extinct, at least in the wild.
The land was set aside in 1937 by an executive order from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, primarily as a breeding ground and rest stop for migratory birds, specifically waterfowl such as ducks and geese. It also happened to be the only remaining wintering ground for migratory whooping cranes.
Destruction of the whooping cranes’ habitat, combined with hunting for plumage and food, decimated a population that once ranged from Mississippi to the Rio Grande Valley.
A 1941 count of the refuge’s whooping cranes found fewer than 20 birds left, “five or six breeding pairs,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whooping crane recovery coordinator Wade Harrell. “It was the last holdout for the species.”
Intense management efforts over the last 75 years have brought the crane back from the brink. And the Aransas refuge is essential to that recovery. While two smaller non-natural whooping crane populations have been established — a non-migratory group in Louisiana, and a 100-bird flock that migrates between Wisconsin and Florida — the refuge’s birds are the only truly wild population left.
Of the nearly 450 birds now living in the wild, 329 of them live part time in Aransas, said Keenan Adams, a biologist and the acting external affairs assistant regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Aransas whooping cranes weren’t affected by the storm. At least, not yet. The birds — which, at 5 feet, are the tallest in North America — weren’t anywhere close to the refuge when Harvey blew through.
Instead, they were 2,500 miles away in northeastern Alberta. From late April to early September, they nest in Canada’s largest national park, the Wood Buffalo National Park.
The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge serves as their winter home. The refuge’s mild winters are ideal for the birds, as are the brackish marshes that hold their diet of blue crabs, pistol shrimp and clams.
Only now have the birds started to leave their Canadian summer home, Harrell said. They’ll make a quick stopover to forage in the farming land of Saskatchewan before pushing south. By mid-October, whooping cranes will start to arrive in the Coastal Bend, with the full population there by mid-December.
So Saenz and Harrell are working to make sure that the refuge is safe for the cranes to return. While the initial glance at habitats has looked good, the refuge’s staff is still waiting for the green light from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to assess all of marshes.
“We’re all waiting with bated breath for our leadership to give us the go-ahead,” Harrell said.
The natural effects from Harvey, such as erosion or saltwater inundation, are a concern, but the biggest threat is man-made.
“Coastal marsh habitats aren’t unaccustomed to hurricanes,” Harrell said. “But there are some new factors that have come into place over the last 100 years: chemical contaminants, debris. Those are things that weren’t there historically.”
Wedged in the brush, not far off the park road, is evidence of that: buoys, plastics, crab traps, tires, bins, all pushed ashore from San Antonio Bay. According to Harrell, a few barges came unmoored and washed aground on San Jose Island, south of the area whooping cranes normally use. And it’s not uncommon to find drums of oil or chemicals that have washed ashore during a violent storm. That happened at some of the refuges in southeast Texas’ Chenier Plain Complex when Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston Island in 2008.
What type of cleanup is required is hypothetical at this point, Saenz said, until staff can assess the marshes.
“It’s not always going to be easy to get to, but we’re hoping to find out how we’re impacted and how we are going to clean it up,” he said.
When the cranes arrive, so do most of the refuge’s human visitors.
About 60,000 make the trek to the refuge every year, with a majority of them coming in the fall and winter months. While some visitors take charter boats out of Port Aransas and Rockport to view the marshes, most come by car.
Two weeks after the storm rolled in, the refuge’s road was still closed, its buildings still without power.
“It’s going to be important for us to get back online as soon as possible,” Saenz said. “We had a response crew as soon as it was safe enough for us to go in so we could to get things going.”
It’s been slow work so far.
Saenz, who had damage at his own home nearly an hour’s drive away, has brought in an engineering crew to assess the refuge’s facilities. Some of the walking trails have been cleared. Others have been closed, with sections of boardwalk missing.
The headquarters could be a total loss. While none of the windows were broken, the wind pushed rain around the window seals of the low concrete structure.
“It may be workable, it may not,” Saenz said.
For now, the refuge’s 19 employees will do what they can to get things back to normal.
Saenz, who grew up in San Diego, Texas, about 60 miles west of Corpus Christi, came back to run the refuge two years ago, after stints at fish and wildlife sites in New Mexico and Louisiana. He had previously worked in Aransas as the deputy manager, and felt the draw to return — much like the refuge’s whooping cranes.
The hurricane, he said, will undoubtedly change this place, but its allure will remain.
“When I came back, it was not only because it was close to home,” he said. “But it was close to my heart.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com