A tribute to Jennifer

A tribute to Jennifer

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

During my second visit to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge located near Necedah, Wis., I met a refugee employee named Jennifer Rabuck. Jennifer’s refuge responsibilities were many, including public relations and access for people with disabilities.

Jennifer believed strongly that everyone should have the opportunity to learn about and enjoy the NNW Refuge first hand. She had an energy and positiveness that was hard to match. Jennifer was born and raised in rural northern Wisconsin, and it showed; she was a 5’9″ tomboy of the wilderness.

We met because of access, and I agreed to consult to help make the refuge more universal in design. Jennifer gave us a car tour of the refuge in February 1999. On that tour we spotted wolf tracks along the road, but she was a little hesitant to talk about wolves on the refuge.

“Officially, wolves aren’t here, at least as far as the public is concerned,” said Jennifer. “Yes, they are here, but the public’s response might be negative, especially with hunters and anti-government types.”

I knew that wolves were in central Wisconsin, but I didn’t know they were this far south. I’d reported a road-killed wolf on I-90 south of Black River Falls to Wisconsin wolf biologist Richard Thiel in 1997. Richard told me there were two recently discovered packs in a large state forest south of Black River Falls, and he found one of the wolf dens just two miles from I-90. Upon further review, the road-killed wolf turned out to be a large coyote.

In the summer of ’99, the NNW Refuge went public about its wolves. The response was mostly favorable, to the surprise of some. The refuge wolves were named the Sukerney pack, and they were the southernmost gray wolves in the United States.

This officially began the period of high-profile endangered species at the NNWR. Little did I know what Jennifer and hundreds of others had in the works regarding another high-profile endangered species, the whooping crane. For years, biologists and others had been looking to establish a population of migrating whooping cranes in the eastern United States. The two big questions, however, were where and how to start one.

Wisconsin seemed to be an ideal place, especially the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge with all its wetlands, sandhill cranes and staff, including Jennifer, who had worked for three years prior at the world-renowned International Crane Foundation. Proximity to the International Crane Foundation, which was only 50 miles, was another plus for the NNWR.

The plan of establishing a new population included raising young whooping cranes hatched at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. The young would be delivered to the refuge at 60 days of age. The cranes would be raised by humans wearing whooping crane outfits and taught to fly by following ultra-light airplanes flown by people dressed as whooping cranes. That autumn, the young flying whoopers were to follow the ultra-lights south to Florida in a series of successive short flights.

At this point, the idea of cranes following ultra-lights was just theory, so to be on the safe side, the first year’s work would be done with sandhill cranes.

As expected, the NNWR was picked as

the site, and in the fall of 2000, young sandhill cranes successfully followed ultra-light planes to winter grounds in Florida. 2001 was to be the year of the whooping crane at NNWR, but there was a different party in charge in Washington, D.C. Bush had promised to cut spending in most departments, especially the Interior Department, and the Republican attitude towards endangered species was not good. There were fears that the Feds would halt the project or bog it down in red tape.

“We were especially anxious about the red tape,” said Jennifer, “but certain local, state and federal elected officials went to bat for us.” The red tape was wadded up and in the waste basket just in time. In July, the young cranes were delivered to the NNWR, and in October, they began their historic flight to Florida.

A lot of hard work went into raising the cranes and preparing them for the flight south, and Jennifer was right in the middle of everything. She helped raise the cranes, helped supervise the site, handled accessibility issues, and was in charge of most of the public relations, which was a huge job in itself. Did I mention the fact that she became a mother for the first time in January of that year?

Some of the more challenging work came right after the cranes left for Florida. This involved the road crew, which was a caravan of vehicles that followed the cranes and planes. I guess you could call it cranes, planes and automobiles, or cranes, planes, automobiles, vans, trucks, Jeeps, campers and SUVs!

Jennifer was a member of the all-important road crew. She did almost everything including P.R., policing the ground sites, buying food, constructing pens, handling cranes, and doing laundry. Laundry was extremely important, as the pilots’ clothing was soaked with perspiration every day of usage. Public relations work was never ending. Jennifer met with a constant stream of journalists and TV reporters.

Occasionally, Jennifer had to persuade landowners to permit the crane circus to stay on their land when the cranes landed on undesignated sites. She was also the diplomat and policewoman when too many visitors showed up at a site.

But Jennifer had few complaints. “The vast majority of people we ran into were very receptive. My only complaint with the road trip were those chains of days when the birds couldn’t fly. That’s when I missed my husband and child the most,” she recalled. “And I missed Wisconsin during my crane road crew trip more than when I went west to fight wildfires in the summer of 2000.”

Jennifer has decided to devote more time to motherhood, but she’ll still be working part time for the Wisconsin DNR, putting out wildfires and working with restorative burns. Jennifer will be missed.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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