Steamboat Springs April and May are prime time in the Yampa Valley for enjoying the guttural cries and mating displays of the greater sandhill cranes. The 4-foot-long cranes raise as many as two chicks per mating pair before migrating south to New Mexico for the winter.
There has been no hunting of the birds in Colorado for decades, but now the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, reassured that numbers of the birds in Northwest Colorado has sufficiently recovered, is considering a limited hunting season. The agency will host a meeting to discuss sandhill crane hunting April 25 at its Steamboat Springs office.
Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins said his office already has received numerous phone calls from concerned residents. He thinks much of the opposition is based on emotion rather than wildlife management principles. Based on conversations with Parks and Wildlife waterfowl biologists, Haskins thinks the local crane population could support limited hunting. Hunting for sandhill cranes already takes place in five nearby states: Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
“In my mind, this is a success story,” Haskins said. “The cranes were listed (in 1973) by the state, not the federal government, as endangered. We did a recovery plan and we were able to increase the breeding population significantly.”
Since the birds were delisted, Colorado has continued to monitor the health of the crane population as a species of interest for more than a dozen years.
Parks and Wildlife officials say no more than 20 to 50 licenses with a limit of one bird per hunter would be granted to Routt and Moffat County hunters. Ultimately, the decision of whether to go ahead with a crane hunting season would be made by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Board of Directors.
Nancy Merrill, coordinator for the Yampa Valley Birding Club, said she is not anti-hunting, but she’s nonetheless opposed to hunting of sandhill cranes.
“I’m pretty passionate about this,” Merrill said. “I’ve talked to people about this and many of them are appalled. Songbirds, cranes, raptors and herons should not be hunted.”
She is concerned that the birds that mate in Colorado still do not occupy all of their historic range. And she thinks not enough is known about the genetic diversity of the overall population, nor is there sufficient data since 2005 about chick mortality rates.
Steamboat hunter Bob Brassell isn’t sure whether he’d hunt sandhill cranes, but he thinks the establishment of a hunting season for them should be considered if it can be demonstrated it won’t harm the population.
“If there’s a huntable population and it’s been proven scientifically that it could be sustained with a certain level of hunting, it might be OK,” Brassell said.
Yampatika Executive Director Sonja Macys said she thinks the decision should be driven by a demonstrable need to manage the population of the birds. Her conservation education organization is working to develop a trail map for bird enthusiasts, and Macys is concerned that a crane hunting season would detract from that.
“We’re trying to develop a nature-based tourism economy here, and birding festivals are fantastic revenue generators,” Macys said.
The greater sandhill cranes that spend the summer in the Yampa Valley (another subspecies of lesser sandhill cranes are predominant on the Front Range) are among more than 19,600 of the birds that were counted while staging for the fall migration in six mountain states that comprise the Rocky Mountain population of the cranes. In autumn 2011, that census found 1,280 birds in Routt County, up dramatically from about 700 in 2010 and 2011 and 375 in 2007.
The hunting licenses issued under a new season in Colorado would not increase the overall number issued for the Rocky Mountain population, according to a news release issued by Parks and Wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service establishes an annual cap on crane harvest for the six states, and because Colorado has not had a hunting season, its pro-rated share has been allotted to the other states. If Colorado were to establish a crane hunting season, the licenses would be reclaimed from the other states.
Haskins said one critical component of the limited hunting season that is being proposed is that it would be timed to take place late in the fall migration season, which collects birds from farther north. That should increase the likelihood that any cranes shot by hunters here would not be among the local nesting population.