Nancy Merrill: Save the cranes | SteamboatToday.com

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Nancy Merrill: Save the cranes

The cry of the sandhill cranes heard after a long winter joyfully announces that they, and spring, have returned to the Yampa Valley.  Sandhill cranes are among the most spectacular birds on Earth, and they are the oldest living species of birds, dating back in North America at least 9 million years. When you hear the voice of the sandhill crane in the spring, you are hearing a trumpet from the past.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold has written about the crane: "And so they live and have their being — these cranes — not in the constricted present but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction … a patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons." Birders and non-birders alike agree that our valley is, indeed, made noble by the presence of these birds in our midst.

Because the cranes are so special to our valley, I am deeply disturbed to learn there is a proposal before the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to allow a sandhill crane hunting season in Routt and Moffat counties. While I am in no way anti-hunting, I adamantly oppose the hunting of sandhill cranes. As recently as the 1940s, the Rocky Mountain sandhill crane population (comprising parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Northwest Colorado) reached a historic low of 150 to 200 breeding pairs. In the 1950s, only 25 breeding pairs from this population were found in Colorado. This prompted the state to list them as an endangered species in 1973.  Since then, intensive efforts have been made to recover their populations within the state. The greater sandhill crane now has been downlisted within Colorado but still is considered a state species of concern. It has not yet fully recovered from its decimation as seen by the fact that it still does not occupy all of its former range.

Sandhills do not share the rapid reproduction rates typical of game bird species. They mate for life but do not begin breeding until 5 to 7 years old. Typically, a pair produces only one offspring per year. In difficult years such as 2011 when we experienced extensive and prolonged flooding, a pair may be unsuccessful in raising any young. The last nesting survey of cranes in our area was done in 2005, so we have no recent accurate data on breeding success, nor is there adequate information on the genetic diversity of the Rocky Mountain population. Why would we want to consider hunting this species when it's still struggling to make a comeback? And shouldn't certain species — cranes, raptors, herons and songbirds — be exempt from hunting, no matter how abundant?

Throughout the world, cranes are regarded with unique respect and affection. Here in the Yampa Valley, they draw tourists and wildlife watchers who spend their dollars and boost our economy. They thrill the tourists and our local population with their complex vocalizations, their joyful dancing and their soaring flight. We are blessed to have these birds in our presence, and we should make every effort to ensure they survive and flourish. 

There is no place for crane hunting in our valley. It is hard to believe that one less species to hunt would diminish the number of hunters visiting our area, whereas a hunting season for cranes could be devastating to birding and wildlife tourism. Please join us in defeating this proposal. Write or email the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission at 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216 or email wildlife.comm@state.co.us. There's also a petition at http://www.tinyurl.com/savethecranes.

Nancy Merrill

Hayden