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Farms that feed migrating sandhill cranes in Colorado are in it for the long haul

Colorado Open Lands’ “Grain for Cranes” program is helping farms surrounding Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge remain a friendly place for migrating birds.

By Jerd Smith Mar 3, 2024

from The Colorado Sun

A sandhill crane takes flight on Feb. 12, 2024, near Delta. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Mike Schaefer and his family have spent a lifetime adoring the sandhill cranes that swoop into the San Luis Valley each spring and fall, crowding the sky and luring thousands of tourists.

“We just like to watch them fly,” he said. “It’s something about the way they circle and circle, and then they catch a current and they’re gone.”

His family’s two farms lie in what conservationists call the Goldilocks zone, a 10-mile radius around the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Farms within this circle, many of which produce barley or alfalfa, offer important services to the cranes that stop there for weeks at a time, providing additional lands and feed to supplement what they find on the refuge.

These cranes, which live for about 30 years and mate for life, have been coming to the valley for some 7,000 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The valley is a key stopover as the tall gray birds with a 6-foot wingspan migrate from winter habitat in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico on their way to places such as Montana and Wyoming to nest and breed. They stop in the valley again on their way south in the fall.

Sandhill cranes are not threatened or endangered, but their habitat in the San Luis Valley and elsewhere is under pressure due to climate change, dwindling water supplies and changes in agricultural crops on which they rely for food, according to the Audubon Society.

Schaefer is among a handful of growers in the San Luis Valley who have preserved or are considering preserving their lands for future generations. His family’s farms, along the Rio Grande north and west of Monte Vista, have been placed under a conservation easement, a legal tool that prohibits use of the lands for almost anything other than farming, and in this case, requiring that the farms’ water rights be tied to the land.

The easements are part of an ongoing effort by the conservation group Colorado Open Lands to ensure that the revered cranes continue to have access to the land and water they need.

And the Schaefers are happy to help.

“We love the cranes,” Schaefer said. “You don’t have to do anything special for them because what we do normally, they like. None of them have ever complained. They like the bugs and insects. And there is water here.”

Cranes feed in different ways in the valley. Some eat grain that is left for them, unharvested in the field. Others feed off the insects and bugs associated with alfalfa fields, and some pick barley fields after they’re harvested.

In its Grain for Cranes program, Colorado Open Lands hopes to build a network of growers intent on farming and conserving water and improving the wetlands, which could benefit the cranes and everyone else.

“It’s a long game for us,” Colorado Open Lands president Tony Caligiuri said. “The Schaefer family are in the sweet spot of where the cranes feed. If cranes have to travel more than 10 miles a day from the refuge to eat, they will burn more energy than they eat.”

The cranes’ lives can be arduous and their future may be equally so, Caligiuri said.

“Yes we need to reduce water use and find more water efficient crops, but wildlife depends on these crops,” he said. “It is a tricky balance. How do you achieve water conservation without decimating the species?”

Because of ongoing water shortages, some farms are being sold just for their water, leaving the land to go dry, a scenario that could harm the cranes and the community, Caligiuri said. 

The visiting birds get nearly 90% of their food from waste grain left on barley fields after harvest and major roosting areas are located in wetlands on private land, a 2020 study of the economic impact of the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival reported.

“Our concern is that they are so dependent on barley, when before they depended on wetlands. But there are almost no wetlands left,” Caligiuri said. “So they’ve adapted to subbing grain for the bugs and insects they would have found in the wetlands. If that crop goes away, it could be catastrophic.”

Historic wetlands gave the birds shelter and food

More than a century ago, water was plentiful in the San Luis Valley, with aquifers so full that water rested on the surface of the land, creating shimmering wetlands as far as the eye could see, according to Suzanne Beauchaine, manager of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, south of Monte Vista. But as the valley’s modern farm economy grew, and high-powered irrigation pumps began drawing water out of the aquifers that lie below the valley, wetlands began disappearing.

Now as water supplies in the valley continue to shrink, there is a broad-based effort to help farmers find new crops that use less water, such as a hybrid grain known as triticale, while remaining tasty enough to lure the cranes to the table, Beauchaine said.

“Before settlers, there was a lot of water,” she said. “But because the groundwater table has been so impacted by all of us pumping, I can’t keep water in places where it used to be 5 feet deep all of the time.”

Beauchaine arrived at the refuge 12 years ago, and it was evident even then that the wetlands on the refuge property were holding less water.

“The things we built 50 years ago aren’t working anymore,” she said. The refuge has its own water rights and groundwater pumps that it uses to water the wetlands and grow crops. But climate change has rendered the valley hotter and drier, with little relief in sight. And costs to pump water in the valley have risen dramatically as groundwater tables have fallen. But it’s not just farmers and conservation groups who are hoping to help the cranes adapt to a drier world.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on multiple fronts at the sprawling, 14,800-acre Monte Vista refuge to ensure cranes have enough to eat now, and that the transition to less thirsty crops will also provide them with new future food sources. In addition, it is rebuilding its crane habitat at the refuge, taking out old levees that were once used to artificially hold back water, creating deep wetlands. In place of the old levees, new shallow pathways are being built that use much less water, but still provide safe haven for cranes throughout the day and night.

“We’re trying to mimic, to a point, what was there prior to European settlement” in the 1600s, Beauchaine said.

Apparently the cranes have noticed. According to the annual bird count, cranes are thriving in the valley this year. More than 25,000 cranes have been counted, where traditionally their numbers have fluctuated around 22,000.

Still Beauchaine and others are concerned that the valley’s darkening water picture and big changes in crops will threaten the birds. Barley has long been a staple in the valley, but it, and alfalfa and potatoes, are water-intensive crops. So growers are looking for alternatives. 

What to do?

In addition to enlisting private landowners, there is also an effort to boost the crane-based tourist economy, something that benefits farmers and their families, Caligiuri said.

According to the study of the crane festival in 2020, some $3.5 million was generated, with $118,000 in tax revenue collected from thousands of people visiting from 15 states, hoping to view the dusky birds as they dance and preen in the wetlands and circle overhead, their otherworldly calls echoing from high in the sky. The study was conducted by Colorado Open Lands and funded, in part, by the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

“There is a huge potential for farmers, if they want to deal with tourists,” Beauchaine said, by doing such things as putting up structures for bird watching.

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