By Jennie Lay

When the immediate fate of the Yampa Valley’s greater sandhill cranes was up for debate last spring, one fact remained clear: the crimson-headed birds’ lifespan may extend to 20 years, but its legacy is prehistoric.

Scientists point to a 10 million-year-old Miocene epoch fossil found in Nebraska that is structurally identical to the modern sandhill crane. That makes sandhill cranes the oldest known bird species alive, but it doesn’t spare them the predicaments of 21st century wildlife management.After surveying three years of population estimates, Colorado Parks and Wildlife proposed creating a limited fall hunting season for greater sandhill cranes in Northwest Colorado. Colorado listed the migrating birds as endangered in 1973 but de-listed them in 1998. The state currently ranks them as a “species of special concern” – although the Colorado Natural Heritage Program deems them “under-conserved” with immediate threats.

Prospects of hunting the tall, elegant birds that are a mainstay on the local landscape caught many people off guard, including members of the Yampa Valley Birding Club. By contrast, a group of hunters hailed the idea. Jim Haskins, CPW’s area wildlife manager, stood behind the agency’s recommendation and was the first to sign a pro-hunting petition, followed by another 150 fans of the plan.

But more than 2,000 opponents signed an anti-hunting petition – and their outspoken efforts prevailed. CPW bagged their proposal on Thursday, June 7, more than a month before a final decision was slated to be made by a newly appointed Parks and Wildlife Commission.

“We were amazed at the outpouring,” says Nancy Merrill, a member of the Yampa Valley Birding Club who helped spearhead the anti-hunting petition. She has since started the nonprofit Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition to help sustain public focus on protecting the birds. “Sandhill cranes are a real iconic, charismatic mega fauna. They’re part of what makes this part of the world special,” she says.

This fall, Steamboat Springs and Hayden is hosting a Celebration of Cranes instead of a crane-hunting season. It kicks off what organizers hope will be an annual festival on the cusp of the birds’ staging time in the Yampa Valley. The two-day festival (Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 18-19) includes films, crane watching, an art show and a community talk by Dr. George Archibald, an internationally revered ornithologist and conservationist and cofounder of the International Crane Foundation.

The failed hunt request originated from 29 goose hunters. Under CPW’s proposal, 20 to 50 licenses, with a limit of one bird per hunter, would have been sold in Routt and Moffat counties for a 58-day hunting season. This would have created Colorado’s first crane hunt west of the Continental Divide, although the Rocky Mountain population of sandhill cranes is hunted in surrounding states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 1,336 were harvested in 2010.

Still, the greater sandhill crane appears to have struck a different chord across Colorado. In the San Luis Valley, where the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge is a stopover for up to 20,000 cranes each spring and fall (and draws about 10,000 annual visitors), a similar crane hunting proposal died in 2005.

“People feel really connected to the cranes. They’ve been watching pairs on their property for years,” says coalition cofounder Barbara Hughes. She surmises that their size, their elaborate dance, vocalization and their habit of mating for life “evoke a personal, emotional response.”

In a letter to the Parks and Wildlife Commission, Stagecoach resident Bob Woodmansee, a retired CSU professor of ecology and ecosystem science, summed up the crux of the local debate: “I can passionately and rigorously apply scientific scrutiny to complicated data sets and question, challenge or defend their validity. But, I cannot pretend to be emotionally detached from the idea of hunting these long-lived, iconic birds that give us a glimpse of our past and a sense of place in Northwest Colorado….I am proud of living in Routt County where I can see and hear these birds and enjoy them again in their unthreatened state.”