The arresting quiet of a crane migration in Washington

Sandhill cranes, cattle and the surprising benefits of their coexistence in the West.

 

There had been such a racket, just moments ago. We were gathered at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge to witness the sandhill crane migration, and we heard the birds before we saw them. They cooed and clucked over our heads as the sun slipped toward the distant Cascade Mountains. Then they appeared, wings arced high, dainty legs dangling in anticipation of the shallow water below. As they landed in the crowded marsh, songbirds whistled from cattail perches, hidden frogs croaked a din, and a pair of beavers splashed in the fading light.

A flock of sandhill cranes in Columbia National Wildlife Refuge take off. Farmers near the refuge leave a portion of their crop to ensure the birds will continue their historic path of migration.
Chris Parmeter‎

Now, on a hill a mere two miles west, the Columbia plateau is suddenly quiet. Arrestingly quiet. So quiet I only notice when someone breaks it by cracking a beer. The sound stuns the way a good, hard laugh exposes long-held sullenness, and leaves me wondering what has changed.

Our camp on the Seep Lakes Wildlife Area — Washington state land that hugs the refuge — sounds empty by comparison, but the view is nearly the same. All around us is a wide expanse of scrub steppe awash in spring-green bunchgrass and teal sage. Umber buttes rise where violent floods scoured the ancient basalt. Below our camp, water glints like mercury in the bottom of a bathtub. But there is no cooing, croaking or clapping. There is only the wind, into which someone gasps, “That smell!” referring, of course, to the unmistakably pungent scent of cow.

Although I spent the day tracing hoof trails from the trodden bank of one watering hole to the trampled edge of another, I just now consider the impact of the grazing cattle. Like much of the plateau, this area is a jumble of federal, state and private land. A rancher owns some acreage surrounding the small lake and graciously allows the public to use it. Camping is no longer allowed inside the refuge, so we sleep here and then migrate there for the birds.

It seems reasonable that a creature with 10 million years of generational knowledge would make wise choices about where it sets down, and standing here amid the silence and stink, I assume the cranes are avoiding the cows. Herds of cattle lumbering haphazardly across a landscape can trample nests and chew through wetland vegetation. If I were a crane, the cow’s embarrassing dumbness would be enough to send me to the refuge. But I seem to have overlooked something larger.

North of our camp sits the Potholes Reservoir, a body of water shaped like a squid, laid out amid the sagebrush with its head pointed southeast and its long blue tentacles winding northwest. It is part of a massive public works project initiated in 1933 that siphons water from the Columbia River to irrigate this otherwise arid plateau. River water leaking from the fields of wheat and barley that surround the blue squid flows into the reservoir through the tentacles. Some is reapplied to the fields, some seeps into ponds, lakes and marshes. It is because of all this that the cranes still come here.

This broad, open land had seemed wild, but it is actually heavily managed — most of all, its water, collected and dispersed at deliberate intervals to mimic wetland habitat. Only about 30,000 sandhill cranes stage here (compared to 600,000 in Nebraska), but they do well. Inside the refuge, farmers partner with conservation managers to grow grain that lures birds. Elsewhere, they leave free calories strewn about fallow fields. Even the cows, grazing ignorantly on public and private land, are helpfully chomping down habitat-hindering invasive weeds.

This is not unique. Government initiatives, including the Conservation Reserve and Stewardship programs (whose fates may be decided by changes to the farm bill), pay the nation’s farmers and cattlemen to help maintain wildlife habitat. A cow-trodden pasture is a far cry from wilderness, but it beats a strip mall, and with half of the West’s wetland resources already lost to development, wildlife biologists are less worried about cows than they are about the remaining ranchers selling off their acreage.

The refuge is designed to provide safe passage through a maze of built environments. Wilderness, by definition, is uncultivated, allowing wild things to suffer or prosper despite us. A bear, which could live and die without ever stumbling upon a person, might know wilderness. A crane, which spends its life hopping over us, cannot. Cranes depend on us because we control their universe of food, water, space and danger. Domineering as we may be, our presence is in their best interest. They would fare far worse without our help in the world we’ve created.

Still, it must seem odd that we gather in droves just to watch them splash in noisy marshes. Like parents keeping a watchful eye from poolside recliners, we corral them in the shallow end. Speaking of which, it turns out that the cows are not to blame for the silence near our camp. The nearby water is too deep for cranes to stand.

Stephen R. Miller is a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado. Follow @SMillerPNW

Republish Print
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Live in a spectacular part of the West and work with great people to build power and win! The Western Organization of Resource Councils is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MONTANA WATERSHED COORDINATION COUNCIL
    About MWCC: The Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) is a dynamic network advancing the Watershed Approach to conservation across Montana. The Watershed Approach is a...
  • COALITION FOR THE UPPER SOUTH PLATTE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    http://cusp.ws/jobs
  • MOUNTAIN BIKE HEAVEN!
    Home For Sale $320,000. Apple Valley, UT. It is in a very quiet, peaceful part of the county and has the dark night sky. It...
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]
  • PERU: WEAVING WORDS & WOMEN ADVENTURE
    April 2020. A 13-day women-only immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and True Nature Journeys. Includes Machu Picchu. Graduate credit available...