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Sandhill cranes’ winter quarters behind schedule

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The first waves of sandhill cranes are here, but the partial federal government shutdown has fouled up plans to get their winter homes ready at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge is winter home to thousands of cranes, a species that had nearly vanished in the early 20th century before efforts at the Bosque del Apache and elsewhere to restore their habitat.

“The birds are already arriving,” said Leigh Ann Vradenburg of the community group Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Fish and Wildlife Service employees were furloughed two weeks ago after House Republicans refused to approve a federal budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 unless Senate Democrats and the White House would agree to scale back President’s Obama’s new program to expand U.S. health care coverage.

As a result, the heavy equipment that is usually plowing under the winter wetlands that serve as the winter habitat for the cranes and other seasonal visitors has been silenced, Vradenburg said. That work usually starts Oct. 1 as heavy equipment does the work once done by floodwaters in the refuge’s wetlands.

The halt occurs at a time when workers are normally busy preparing for the Nov. 19-24 Festival of the Cranes, a major tourist draw for the Socorro area. Once the government shutdown ends and Fish and Wildlife Service employees can get back to work, they’ll have to make up for two to three weeks of lost time as they prepare for the November onslaught of visitors, Vradenburg said.

Failure to prepare the birds’ winter habitat also increases the risk that birds will spread out across the Rio Grande Valley, raiding farmers’ fields, Vradenburg said.