By Michael Osterman
Photos by Harold Kamins
The Yampa Valley is home to a large variety of animals. For 6 months of the year we are graced with one of the oldest living species of bird… somewhere between 2 – 10 million years old! Those majestic birds that we see soaring through our skies and that we see strutting and dancing through our fields… are the Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Crane. Certainly, many if not most of us take these primordial creatures for granted. Yet some amongst us have sat up and taken notice of the Sandhill Crane, one of 15 species of cranes throughout the world. Meet Nancy Merrill… one of our local Craniacs!!
Nancy and her husband John first began spending summers in Routt County in the early 80’s. Some years later their family took up skiing and the “Yampa Valley Curse” took hold. They moved here full time in 2001 and settled on a ranch near Hayden. Nancy was already an avid birder and member of Audubon and The Nature Conservancy. She had no idea, however, that their ranch was a staging area for the Sandhill Crane. Mesmerized by the 100’s of prehistoric birds flying overhead, Nancy soon became an avowed Craniac.
Nancy is the co-founder and president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, board member of the International Crane Foundation, and recently traveled to China (pre-covid-19!!) to give a keynote speech at an International Birdwatching event. It turns out that due to their migratory patterns, all 15 species of cranes cover substantial portions of the globe. It appears that no matter one’s nationality, the human species seems to have the same admiration for cranes the world over.
The Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Cranes migrate as far south as Mexico during the winter months, returning every spring to delight us with their calls, their mating dance, and their astounding elegance that can measure up to 5 feet tall. During their time here in the Yampa Valley they mate, roost, and raise their young in our midst. They mate for life, stay together year-round, and return annually to the same breeding grounds.
The Sandhill Crane, while clearly an important connection to the past, also contributes to biodiversity and our wildlife habitats. An omnivore, they help control rodent populations, insect infestations, and make a valuable contribution to soil fertility. They also make a significant contribution to the health of wetlands by keeping cattails in check as well as other plants and grasses. This effort contributes to opening up waterways for other species and maintains a healthy waterflow.
As one might expect, there are numerous challenges to overcome as our wildlife habitat is continually under siege. Over the past 80 years local production of grain crops has decreased from 85,000 acres to 10,000 acres. Those harvested grain fields are an important food source for the cranes prior to migration. To that end, Nancy has also helped to create a new initiative called Crops for Cranes. This project, a first of its kind in the area, has a large number of local partner organizations and in cooperation with local farmers and ranchers, this program pays for the planting of grain crops to help insure that the Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Crane will continue to grace us with its presence for many generations to come.
The WHILD endowment fund supports local wildlife habitat improvement projects, including capital projects, planning, research, studies, management, enforcement, education and other wildlife habitat improvement projects for public benefit within Routt County. WHILD is sponsoring a series of stories highlighting how we can all make a difference in improving wildlife habitat.
To donate or learn more about WHILD go here. Please also let us know if you are aware of other local wildlife habitat improvement heroes!!