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Rabbitbrush Rambler: GRWUAARGH

Posted: Tuesday, Mar 12th, 2013

Itís springtime in the Rockies, and from mid- February until about mid-April, we will be hearing raucous choruses of Greater Sandhill Cranes. We enjoy watching them, but they sound as if they are having trouble getting a meal down or coughing it up. Grwuaargh!

Joking aside, the spring migration is a hazardous journey and always was, even when Mother Nature alone was is in charge.

The Greater Sandhill Cranes stop here to eat during migration along the Rocky Mountain Flyway. The journey starts while snow often is still on the ground, although hormones are urging the birds onward to their nesting grounds in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.

In the fall, they meander back more casually, dining on autumnís bounty in Colorado, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The large flocks of Lesser Sandhill Cranes stay mainly east of the Rockies although we see quite a few Lessers here during migration, while some Greater Sandhills have a route farther west that takes them to Arizona and Mexico.

Several years ago an experimental program resulted in Whooping Cranes traveling through the Valley. At this moment we local birders are intrigued by a white bird in the migrating flock that may have resulted from interbreeding between a Lesser and a Whooping Crane in eastern Colorado, as a small number of Whoopers do use the eastern pathway.

Despite the hazards like climate, the cranes have known for thousands of years (or probably millions of years) that Mother Natureís larder was usually good in the San Luis Valley. There were an abundance of open grasslands and wetlands where the cranes foraged with their pointed bills for seeds, berries, insects, small rodents, snakes, worms and other yummy things.

But there were natural hazards, too. Besides the snow, animals such as eagles, raccoons, badgers, skunks, and larger animals eat birds that are sick or injured. Does anyone know whether, in those distant times, there were any crane nests here with eggs and baby cranes that were plundered by their natural enemies? I donít know.

Humans also ate cranes. Try to imagine a Paleo-Indian or a Ute passing up an easy target of about 10 pounds of protein on a Greater Sandhill Crane. Wouldnít you love to know who did the petroglyph in a cave south of Del Norte, and when?

Those were the good old days, before hunters, farmers, and town builders moved westward through North America in the 1800s and eventually into the San Luis Valley. Today, instead of open land, we have tilled fields, towns, paved roads, utility lines, industrial enterprises, suburbs and rural developments.

As settlement increased, the numbers of cranes and other small game birds decreased and had become severely diminished by the time that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1918, and the plummet continued down until the mid-1900s. In Colorado in the 1970s, Greater Sand Hill Cranes were still listed as a species of special concern.

But today, we also have federal and state wildlife programs that have made the recovery of wildlife possible. The present tally of cranes in the Valley is sometimes stated as being around 20,000 during migration. The San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex, however, reported 23,000 to 27,000 in 2012.

This reversal of the downward trend did not happen accidentally. Public awareness and environmental management both have changed.

Wildlife refuges were established here, primarily for waterfowl and other wildlife but also for the migrating cranes which play such a big role here. A network of refuges along the flyway has assured that there would be resting places and food at both ends of the route down south and up north and in between in the San Luis Valley. The refuges provide water and small grains, and the program fosters partnerships with farmers who are paid to leave residue for the birds after the harvest.

But in a rural area like ours where cropland attracts cranes, the birds are not warmly welcomed by all farmers, although the locals recognize the economic benefits of crane watchers. If drought conditions continue, the popularity of the big birds may become more problematic, I imagine.

Numbers of Lesser Sandhill Cranes have recovered to the point that hunting them is now permitted in October and November east of the Continental Divide, except in Jackson County and the San Luis Valley.

In 2012, Moffat and Routt Counties promoted hunting of Greater Sandhill Cranes.

While advocates of sports and birdwatching battled in the Yampa Valley, what I wanted to know was what is best in the big picture for the conservation of the cranes, not for the special interests of hunters or birdwatchers. The question should have been, Is the population of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Rocky Mountain Flyway sustainable or unsustainable, now and in the future?

In the end, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission (Colorado Division of Wildlife) turned down the proposal for hunting Greater Sandhill Cranes in northwestern Colorado last year. Stay tuned.

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