Wheeler Wildlife Refuge opens for crane festival amid gov’t shutdown


Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is back in business even though the partial government shutdown is dragging to the end of its third week.

About a third of the refuge’s staff came back to work Thursday, just in time for ‘day one’ of the festival expected to draw thousands. The visitor’s center and observation center are now open.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says prior appropriated funding from 2018 is letting 29 wildlife refuges open if they have big public events. The Festival of the Cranes, which draws around 5,000 people to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, means North Alabama qualifies.

The spokesman says nine additional refuges will open so critical issues can be addressed. But the funding is only expected to last about 30 days.

“How does it feel to be back?” WZDX News asked Supervisory Park Ranger Theresa Adams.

“It is the first day back and we’re delighted to get back to work,” she replied.

Adams says five people are back to work at the refuge. They get a lot of help from volunteers, who are needed now more than ever since the festival starts this first day back.

“This bird almost became extinct,” Adams said about the whooping crane. “In Alabama during the winter we have the most whooping cranes of any state.”

As the cranes flock to Morgan County, visitors flock to the festival to see them, providing an economic boost for the area.

“Well my favorite part’s always the birds!” said Adams. “I love it when people come and maybe that’s the first time they’ve seen a whooping crane and you get really excited. I still get excited. And the bald eagles show up down there and maybe an otter or two.” 

Visitors hope the partial government shutdown ends soon so they can continue to access the buildings that give an up-close look.

“It’s fairly easy just to come out to the visitor’s center, go out to the observation building, and see one of the most endangered birds in the world,” Adams said. “That’s always special.”

Adams says parking is expected to be tight at the festival so be sure to leave extra time to catch the shuttle from downtown Decatur.

Get more details about the festival here.

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