Greater Sandhill Crane Week marks start of bugling bird’s return to Yampa Valley

Greater Sandhill Cranes will begin returning to the Yampa Valley around the start of March, where about 1,200 of them will spend the summer in wetlands in Routt and Moffat counties. (Courtesy/Nancy Merrill)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the next few weeks, about 1,200 tall, lanky birds known for their unique bugling call that can carry for miles will return to the Yampa Valley after spending the winter in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona.

To mark the return of the greater Sandhill crane to the wetlands in Routt and Moffat Counties, commissioners in each county have declared the first week in March, Greater Sandhill Crane Week, paying tribute to the birds.

“We are very lucky here because we have healthy wetlands, and the cranes love wetlands. They are a very wetland dependent bird,” said Nancy Merrill, who describes her love for cranes as an “addiction” and is president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.

The Rocky Mountain flock of cranes are adapted to live in the mountains and have made a comeback in Colorado since their population had dwindled to just about 20 cranes in Routt County in the 1960s. Colorado still classifies the species as a tier one species of concern, which means it is the one of the highest conservation priorities for the state.

The Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition is in its 10th year after founding to stop a proposal to hunt the birds in the Yampa Valley in 2012. When that proposal was withdrawn, the group stayed together to start up the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which celebrates cranes as they stage before making their trip farther south for the winter

As part of Greater Sandhill Crane Week, the coalition is launching a number of their annual contests drawing attention to cranes. Prizes will be awarded to the first person to spot — and also take a picture or video of — a crane in their part of the county. Another contest is looking for the best photo of cranes in the Yampa Valley and the Rocky Mountains in general taken by both amateur and professional photographers.

The group also is offering $10,000 in scholarships to high school students that create a written work, visual piece of art, or performance that accurately reflects the physical characteristics, behavior and habitat of the birds. First prize in each category will get a $2,000 scholarship, and submissions are due March 25.

For younger children, a coloring contest is running through August 15 and can be both picked up and submitted at Bud Werner Memorial Library, Oak Creek Library and Lyon’s Drugs.

Cranes are not considered what is called a keynote species. Keynote species normally have such a disproportionate effect on an ecosystem that without them it would drastically change. Instead, Merrill sees the cranes as an “ambassador species,” meaning it can draw attention to environmental and conservation issues that affect other animals as well.

“They are sort of a species that makes people aware of the environment, makes people want to protect the environment,” Merrill said.

Essentially, if people work to protect cranes, that conservation will have direct effects on the overall quality of their habitat and the other plants and animals in it that may not be as unique and interesting as the cranes.

While Merrill said there likely is not anything someone is inadvertently doing that hurts the cranes directly, protecting wetlands is very important for their survival. This can be especially crucial during drought seasons.

“I’m a little concerned about them for this year actually because we just have not had even average amounts of snow,” Merrill said.

While adult birds should be able to manage low water years, the young of that year are at the most risk because there will be less insects and other plants that they depend on for food.

This is why Merrill says the birds are “not out of the woods yet” when it comes to conservation. Each year, a crane will have at most two chicks and often times, just one, meaning they have a relatively low reproductive rate.

“They are not like geese where geese will have 12 at a time. The cranes only have one or two, and only in good years will both of the birds survive,” Merrill said.

Some of the cranes in the Rocky Mountain flock nest locally thoughout the summer, but even more will come to the Yampa Valley in the fall. The Yampa River in Hayden and near the Elk River by Steamboat Springs are two of the three places in Colorado where the birds stage or gather before they start their journey south for the winter.

Another interesting piece of this week to Merrill is that the week was declared in both Routt and Moffat counties.

“The cranes really unite people and unite the valley,” she said. “Everybody seems to value the cranes, and this is a way of bringing it to the public attention that we are very lucky to have these birds here.”

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