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Steamboat Magazine

A Slim Chance

06/15/2023 07:00AM ● By Erin Campbell
(Slim, a recused Sandhill Crane, about to take flight after being released in Delta, CO. Photo courtesy of Grey Barbier & Noah Brinkman.)

From Steamboat Magazine Home Edition 2023

Have you ever seen a rancher rope a crane? That’s what happened last November when a greater sandhill crane was spotted on a ranch in Walden picking at an elk carcass, unable to fly. As part-time residents of the Yampa Valley, this species of crane typically leaves the area in mid-September en route to warmer wintering grounds farther south. As winter approached, it was unusual to see the bird lingering. With the help of some gentle and caring cowboys, the crane was carefully roped and transported to Steamboat Springs by horse trailer.

The injured crane was confirmed to have a broken wing and needed care from local nonprofit Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation. For the past 30 years, Tracy Bye has cared for wild animals in need with a mission of releasing each one back into the wild. Upon arrival at Born Free, the underweight and injured crane was aptly named Slim, and given a temporary home in a cozy, heated barn. 

For the next eight weeks, Slim gained her weight back on a diet of corn, mice and 6,000 superworms per week, all funded by the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition. Kept in a warm, small space, Slim was able to heal the fracture in her wing under Tracy’s watchful eye. Often, Tracy would wear a gray, hooded coat to mimic a crane’s appearance, to lessen the stress on Slim. Her careful and thoughtful approach paid off, and once Slim began roosting on higher perches in the barn, Tracy knew it was time for her release. 

(Grey Barbier oversees Slim’s release in Delta, CO. Photo courtesy of Grey Barbier & Noah Brinkman.)

A crane release in the midst of a Yampa Valley winter – especially this past winter – was not easy, so Tracy asked for help from two local high schoolers who also happen to be expert birders and photographers. Grey Barbier and Noah Brinkman were not only experienced in crane rescue, but also knew exactly where Slim needed to go for her release. Having recently been to Delta, Grey and Noah knew there were thousands of sandhill cranes wintering in the area. A region known for growing corn, Delta sits at an elevation of 4,875 feet and has a mild winter climate. After a successful rehabilitation and with the approval of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Tracy, Grey and Noah left for Delta on Monday, Jan. 9, to release Slim back to her own kind.

During those four months of rehab, “Slim didn’t hear anyone speak her language,” Tracy explains. When they arrived in Delta, Slim’s head perked up and she was visibly happy to hear those familiar loud, rattling bugle calls once again. With a flowing river, harvested corn fields, and thousands of her own kind in sight, Slim’s release was an exceptionally beautiful moment.  For Tracy, Slim’s story is one of many highlights she has witnessed at Born Free. “I am grateful for tons of experience with all kinds of wildlife, and release is the best feeling,” she reflects. And as for Slim, she is amongst the cranes enjoying her second chance at life. v