The whooping cranes will be coming back to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge soon, and when they do, they should find new improvements to their home.

Since 2001, Chassahowitzka, about 65 miles north of St. Petersburg, Fla., has hosted a cohort of whooping cranes during the winter months. A pen was built to protect the cranes from predators. But since the pen site is in a remote area of the refuge, surrounded by waters of the refuge’s open marsh, every year the site is hammered by numerous storms that come in from the Gulf. The storms damage structures that include fencing, a boardwalk, camouflaged area and blind.

Fortunately these storms usually occur during the summer and early fall months when the cranes are up north, but the damage requires tending by the refuge’s staff prior to the cranes’ arrival each year. Some of the pen materials deteriorate each year from the combination of sun and saline air.

The refuge recently received $13,000 in federal stimulus funds to improve the whooping crane pens. The boardwalk and fencing will be upgraded with sustainable materials, and the dock area will be modified for easier personnel access. The open pen is about five acres, surrounded by an 8-foot fence. An adjacent smaller top netted pen was built to protect sub-adult cranes from adult cranes. The site includes a two-story camouflaged blind to help biologists monitor the cranes, and a boardwalk to provide access from the blind to the pen. 

“The projected improvements will not only make it easier for the staff to work in the area, but will also benefit the cranes by increasing protection from predators and damages to the protective fence from different weather factors,” said refuge manager Michael Lusk. 

The Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1941, comprises over 31,000 acres of saltwater bays, estuaries and brackish marshes at the mouth of the Chassahowitzka River. The refuge was established primarily to protect waterfowl habitat and is home to over 250 species of birds, over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and at least 25 species of mammals, including the endangered West Indian Manatee.

Phil Kloer is a public affairs specialist for the Southeastern region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service