Trail closed to protected endangered birds
Sandhill cranes are so endangered that there are only about 40 breeding pairs in the state, so wildlife managers were encouraged to discover a pair nesting in the Big Valley Wildlife Area near Mazama.
Because the birds are endangered, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has closed part of the Big Valley trail through September to protect the birds and keep them from being disturbed. Disturbance can cause the birds to abandon their nest, endangering any young.
The trail is still open for access to the Methow River or an agricultural field, but people can no longer make a loop to connect the two segments. The closure affects 240 acres of the Big Valley unit, but the rest of the Methow Wildlife Area, which encompasses 34,500 acres in multiple units throughout the valley, remains open.
This is the only known pair of nesting cranes ever documented in the Methow Valley, WDFW Communications Manager Staci Lehman said. The large birds are primarily gray, with a red cap. Their wingspan is more than 6 feet.
“To have a pair nesting on the Methow Wildlife Area at the Big Valley Unit for the second year in a row is not only rare and exciting, but also a promising advancement in the recovery of this species in Washington state,” Methow Wildlife Area Manager Brandon Troyer said.
The cranes first showed up in the area last year and hatched two baby cranes, known as colts, but neither colt survived. The birds appear to be nesting in the same area this year, but WDFW biologists don’t know if they have any eggs or colts this year, Lehman said.
Cranes build their nests on the ground. It takes a month for eggs to hatch and at least two months for the colts to become independent. In the fall, the juveniles migrate south with their parents.
Sandhill cranes often mate for life and the pair share the responsibility for guarding the nest and foraging for food.
Sandhill cranes are opportunistic feeders and will eat insects and small mammals, but they particularly like plants and grain. Through a lease with WDFW, Bluebird Grain Farms farms the field, which biologists believe is what attracted the birds to the area. WDFW agricultural leases are intended to provide a wildlife benefit and Bluebird’s agricultural practices and crop selection are a prime example of this, Troyer said.
Sandhill cranes are also extremely wary of people and other animals, and repeated disturbance often makes them desert a nest, which increases the likelihood that other animals will prey on the unattended nest.
To protect this pair of cranes — and the survival of cranes across the state — it’s important for humans to stay outside of the nesting area, WDFW said.
There used to be numerous nesting sites throughout eastern Washington, but the sandhill crane was extirpated for about 30 years. Staring in the 1970s, nesting pairs were discovered at a handful of sites.
There are three subspecies of sandhill cranes in Washington, all considered endangered. There are only about 100 adult and subadult pairs, and only about 40 breeding pairs, according to WDFW.
Because they require protective measures for survival, based on their small population and sensitivity to habitat alteration, WDFW designated the birds as a priority species.
Washington’s Wildlife Action Plan classifies sandhill cranes as a species of greatest conservation need. That designation is part of a nationwide effort to develop conservation-action plans for wildlife and their natural habitats.
Every March, tens of thousands of cranes pass through the Othello area in their northern migration to breeding grounds in Alaska. An annual festival gives people an opportunity to see and learn about the birds, which can remain in the area for a few weeks.
People may be able to see the birds at Big Valley from a safe distance with good binoculars from pullouts along Highway 20, Lehman said.
But the best thing we can do to improve the odds of the cranes’ breeding success is simply leave them alone and provide them sufficient space to raise their colts, Troyer said. “We all want to sneak a peek at these amazing birds, but to a sandhill crane, humans are predators and that’s why it’s so important to be mindful of the closure boundaries,” he said.
WDFW law enforcement officers patrol the area regularly to ensure that no one is disturbing the cranes or acting irresponsibly.