New whooping crane coordinator changes to controversial counting method

Jan 28, 2013 | Victoria Advocate by Dianna Wray | TAP In The News

AUSTWELL – Wade Harrell still remembers the moment he walked up to the deck at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and got his first look at whooping cranes as a kid.

It was dazzling, seeing the snowy white birds winging through the marsh, he said.

He had no way of knowing then that one day he’d be responsible for the majestic white birds. When he got the job as whooping crane coordinator, it was like coming home.

“Aransas is my home refuge. I remember climbing up there and seeing my first whooper when I was in school. I was so excited,” he said.

Now, he is the guy charged with overseeing efforts to ensure the survival of the endangered species – the last known naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in North America.

Harrell became whooping crane coordinator in September 2012. He was taking the reins from Tom Stehn, who had been watching over the cranes for the past 29 years.

When Harrell came to the job, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found itself embroiled in a messy lawsuit between the Aransas Project and the state of Texas over water use and the whoopers.

The federal agency usually prefers to stay apolitical and to keep out of the fray, he said.

And at the center, Harrell was trying to make sure his mission – to help the whooping crane flock continue to grow – didn’t get overshadowed while he settled in to learn about his position.

“That’s the exciting thing about this job – there’s always something to learn,” he said.

Harrell grew up in Portland. His mother was a teacher who encouraged an appreciation of nature, and Harrell spent hours fishing and hunting with his father.

He developed a passion for the outdoors, and by high school, he knew he wanted to go into wildlife management. He wanted a job where he could stay outside and enjoy nature.

Harrell attended Texas A&M University-Kingsville for his undergraduate work and went to Oklahoma State University for his graduate and doctoral work. He had gone to school with the idea of studying wildlife management, but he found himself drawn to wildlife habitats.

During these years, he worked on projects looking at the ecology of Oklahoma grasslands and worked as an intern on Matagorda Island along the Texas coast.

The Attwater’s prairie chicken was just being reintroduced when he came to the Nature Conservancy in Victoria.

Harrell worked for years trying to get the chickens a new foothold in their new environment, leaving to take a job in Austin as coordinator of state and private lands. This was an extension of his job working with the chickens, which had required working things out with farmers and ranchers to persuade them to let the bird habitats be put on their lands.

“If you’re going to manage wildlife, you can help the indigenous species, but in the end, you have to preserve the habitat itself, or you won’t have a place for them to live,” he said.

He and his wife and two sons packed up their things, sold their house and moved to Austin in 2009, thinking they’d left Victoria behind. But then, two years later, he got a chance to return as whooping crane recovery coordinator.

When Stehn retired, it seemed like he knew everything about whooping cranes, Harrell said. It was daunting stepping into his shoes, especially since the endangered birds were at the center of a legal struggle that had simmered for years but was coming to a boil as it rolled into court.

“I told them from the get-go that I’m not the whooping crane expert by any means, that Tom is,” he said.

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