Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition marks 10 years with new director, nest cam and scholarships

A group of great Sandhill cranes feed in a field in Hayden at sunset. (Photo by Shelby Reardon)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After 10 years in the Yampa Valley, the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, which is dedicated to the conservation and protection of greater Sandhill cranes in Colorado, has much to celebrate in addition to its anniversary.

In 2021, the organization hired its first full-time employee creating a new program director position, is installing a livestream nest cam and offering $10,000 in scholarships to local students.

During the decade since its inception, the previously volunteer-run coalition kept creating and building programs and eventually hit a point when the volunteers and board members were tapped out. So, they decided to hire Erin Gelling, a frequent volunteer for the coalition and graduate student at the University of Wyoming.

“I’m really excited to see the organization continue onto the next step from where it’s been,” Gelling said. “It’s also been a really great journey, because I’ve been able to be a part of the organization when it was all volunteer, and now as a paid employee, to see it grow.”

Two other big developments for the coalition are taking place this year as the group plans to install a camera at a crane nesting site in Hayden this summer. People will be able to livestream the feed and ask questions about the cranes on the coalition’s website or Facebook page.

Additionally, the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition is granting $10,000 in scholarships in honor of its 10th year. Typically, the nonprofit gives out $6,000, but a generous donation from Gail Jensen allowed the coalition to expand its gift-giving abilities.

There are three categories in the crane-inspired creative scholarship contest: written, visual and performing arts. he first-place applicant in each category receives $2,000. Details can be found on the coalition’s website.

With Gelling at the reigns, the coalition has big plans for its future. Gelling and Nancy Merrill, the group’s co-creator and board president, said they are working to expand educational programming to all ages rather than just the third-grade programs that exist now. Merrill also hopes to track the nesting sites of cranes in the valley with more intention and organization.

“I’d like to see some more science in the organization,” Gelling said. “Starting up citizen science projects or simple research projects. I’d really like to see that started as well.”

Merrill believes that in 10 years of conservation, the Crops for Cranes program has done the most good for the birds. The program works with local farmers to plant grain crops, such as wheat, oats and barley. When the cranes visit the valley to breed, they feed on the waste of the harvested crops. Without the program, farmers wouldn’t opt to plant such crops, since there is little economic value to them.

A greater Sandhill crane forages for food in a hay meadow west of Steamboat Springs that shows the shades of fall.

“That’s a program we’d really like to grow as well,” Merrill said. “But shortage of time and manpower and woman power has limited us from really expanding that program.”

Hopefully, with a full-time director, programs can expand and grow in the years to come.

Merrill loves the work the coalition has done for the cranes, but most of all, she said she loves sharing with the Yampa Valley how special the birds are. Mostly, that’s been done through the Yampa Valley Crane Festival. The 10th annual festival will take place Sept. 2 to 5.

“I’m most proud of the fact that our local population in general has really gotten excited about cranes. I find it so gratifying,” Merrill said. “I’ll be walking down the street, and people will recognize me as the crane lady. They’ll stop and tell me about the cranes they saw flying over or the crane that landed near their pond or they heard the cranes because they have a unique call.

“I’m most proud of the fact that people in our area are proud of having these birds here and really seem to love them,” Merrill added.

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