Larger sandhill cranes will return to the Yampa Valley in early March, where approximately 1,200 of them will spend the summer in wetlands in Routt and Moffat counties. (Courtesy Nancy Merrill)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Over the next several weeks, approximately 1,200 large, lanky birds, known for their unique, mile-long bugle call, will return to the Yampa Valley after winter in northern Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona.

To mark the return of the larger Sandhill crane to the wetlands of Counties Routt and Moffat, commissioners in each county have declared the first week of March, Greater Sandhill Crane Week, to pay tribute to the birds.

“We are very lucky here because we have healthy wetlands and the cranes love wetlands. They’re a very wetland bird, ”said Nancy Merrill, who describes her love for cranes as an“ addiction ”and is president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition.

The Rocky Mountain crane herd is adapted to life in the mountains and has made a comeback in Colorado since its population dipped to only about 20 cranes in Routt County in the 1960s. Colorado continues to classify the species as a Tier 1 of concern, which means it is one of the state’s highest conservation priorities.

The Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition is in its tenth year since its inception on a proposal to stop the birds in the Yampa Valley in 2012. When that proposal was withdrawn, the group stuck together to kick off the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which celebrates cranes as they stage, before heading south for the winter

As part of Greater Sandhill Crane Week, the coalition is launching a number of its annual competitions to raise awareness of cranes. Prizes are given to the first person who discovers a crane in their part of the district – and also takes a photo or video of it. Another competition is to find the best photo of cranes in the Yampa Valley and the Rockies in general, captured by both amateur and professional photographers.

The group also offers $ 10,000 scholarships for students who create a written work, visual work of art, or performance that accurately reflects the birds’ physical characteristics, behavior, and habitat. First prize in each category will be awarded a scholarship of $ 2,000. Submission is due on March 25th.

A painting competition for younger children is running until August 15, which can be picked up and submitted at the Bud Werner Memorial Library, Oak Creek Library and Lyon’s Drugs.

Cranes are not considered a so-called keynote species. Keynote species typically have such a disproportionate impact on an ecosystem that without them they would change dramatically. Instead, Merrill sees the cranes as an “ambassador”, which means that they can raise awareness of environmental and conservation issues that affect other animals as well.

“They are kind of a species that makes people aware of the environment and makes them want to protect the environment,” Merrill said.

Essentially, when people work to protect cranes, that conservation has a direct impact on the overall quality of their habitat and the other plants and animals in it, which may not be as unique and interesting as the cranes.

While Merrill said there is probably nothing anyone will accidentally do that will directly injure the cranes, protecting wetlands is very important to their survival. This can be particularly important during periods of drought.

“I’m a little worried about her this year because we just didn’t have an average amount of snow,” Merrill said.

While adult birds should be able to handle low water years, the young are most at risk this year as there are fewer insects and other plants to rely on for food.

Because of this, Merrill says the birds are “not out of the woods yet” when it comes to conservation. Each year a crane has at most two chicks and often only one, which means that they have a relatively low reproductive rate.

“They are not like geese where geese have 12 each. The cranes only have one or two, and only in good years will both birds survive, ”Merrill said.

Some of the cranes in the Rocky Mountain herd nest locally throughout the summer, but more will come to the Yampa Valley in the fall. The Yampa River at Hayden and near the Elk River at Steamboat Springs are two of the three places in Colorado where the birds stage or congregate before starting their journey south for the winter.

Another interesting piece this week for Merrill is that the week has been explained in both Routt and Moffat counties.

“The cranes really unite people and unite the valley,” she said. “Everyone seems to appreciate the cranes, and this is a way to make the public aware that we are very lucky to have these birds here.”