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Steamboat Magazine

Keeping the Cranes

07/15/2016 10:16AM ● By Dan Greeson

View the oldest known living bird species during the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 8-11. Photo by Abby Jensen.

By Jennie Lay

Sentiments regarding the Yampa Valley’s flock of prehistoric, crimson-headed neighbors have undergone a drastic shift since a limited fall hunt of greater sandhill cranes was first proposed (and subsequently denied) in 2012. 

A festival celebrating the birds now draws thousands of annual visitors to Steamboat Springs and Hayden; crane curriculum has become standard for third-graders throughout Routt County; and photos of dancing cranes flock to social media when Northwest Colorado’s giant birds return to nest each spring. People feel connected to the cranes, and a grassroots effort is evolving to make sure the birds stick around.

Sandhill cranes are the oldest known living bird species. The thriving local success of this designated “species of special concern” is being perpetuated by innovations in 21st century wildlife management. A new conservation program called Crops for Cranes is bringing together nonprofit conservation organizations (led by the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition), willing private landowners, and federal and state agencies focused on land and wildlife conservation to plant wheat for migrating birds to eat. The wheat crops should create prime feeding grounds for greater sandhill cranes as they make their cinematic late-summer stopover in the Yampa Valley.

Crops for Cranes is an incentive program for farmers to set aside small parts of their crops for wildlife. Productive agricultural land is not part of the program – it’s about maximizing underutilized spaces. Private landowners can earmark fields that were going unused, land around a wetland, or corners that are hard to cut with a tractor. Near Hayden, an area where leafy spurge was a persistent weed problem is now being planted with wheat to attract cranes. 

Farmers who participate in the program cut the wheat and leave it; in return they are paid full market value for their crop. Average local production is 25 bushels per acre, and the average price has been $5.85 per bushel over the past three years. 

The Yampa Valley experiment started last summer. About 30 acres in the Yampa River State Wildlife Area west of Hayden were planted with wheat. A second area was planted near Steamboat Springs in the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife Area, which was historically a crane staging area. In each case, the Crane Conservation Coalition bought the seed using grants and private donations, then state wildlife officials planted it. 

The program aims to benefit cranes, but also improve crane viewing during the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which has become an ecotourism force of its own. The 2016 goal is to secure commitments for 100 acres in Crops for Cranes, including several private landowners in the Hayden area.

“This is a multi-year project. It’s about building relationships with ranchers,” says Nancy Merrill, founder of the crane coalition. “Agriculture is really important to wildlife.” 

The omnivorous birds love wetlands filled with bugs, frogs and plants, but they also love small grain waste. Yampa Valley farmers planted about 85,000 acres of grain crops in the 1940s, but that has dipped below 10,000 acres today – a decrease that could affect cranes coming to stage on this landscape before their long flights to wintering grounds in New Mexico and Arizona.

This year, corn is being planted along with wheat on the Yampa River Preserve. Evidence from huge feasting flocks in the San Luis and Platte River valleys proves that cranes love corn. What transpires with the Yampa Valley’s short growing season makes this more of a gamble however: “Now there is a kind of corn that can be grown in our area. It’s a bit of an experiment, but if it works, we can try it in other areas,” Merrill says.

Becky Jones, the private lands wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been working with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to create a map with the primary pre-migration areas overlaid with a map of small grain crops. “Our (crane) population is doing well. But the small grain crops could be a problem in the future as farmers get out of the business, sell land or whatever. It’s not as lucrative anymore,” Jones says. 

And there are still some landowners who are unhappy about the cranes getting in their crops. “Unlike elk or deer in the haystacks, we can’t compensate them because it’s not a hunted species. We’re hoping this incentive program may help with that,” Jones says. 

“A lot of wheat stays behind after the cutting – waste wheat that doesn’t get cut by the combine. The cranes use it,” says Mark Stewart, Xcel Energy’s plant environment analyst in Hayden. Xcel’s lessee, Mike Williams, is participating in Crops for Cranes by leaving part of his harvest in the field. In turn, the Hayden power plant is allowing the crane festival access to internal roads so they can bring guided wildlife watchers close to where the cranes hang out. 

Yampa Valley Crane Festival, Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 8-11