The Yampa Valley is known for its biodiversity in wildlife, rural ranching and farming lifestyles, and the hunting opportunities of a variety of game species. The Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane provides a source of ecotourism for the valley and have been an iconic part of the Yampa Valley for decades. So how do the cranes, rural lifestyles, and hunting come together? Well, back in 2011-2012 there was a proposal for the Sandhill Crane to be considered a game species, which would allow for a certain number of cranes to be hunted each year. With the cranes being a “species of concern,” conservationists and local residents were horrified at this idea and began a petition to stop this from happening. Long story short the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition (CCCC) was formed to provide education and ensure the protection of the crane population .
Colorado is an important stopover, also known as a staging area, for the Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes. The cranes rely on waste, or leftover, grain crops for nutrition during migration to their wintering grounds but due to economic changes in the Yampa Valley, agricultural trends have greatly decreased the amount of grain available. Water availability is becoming an issue in southern Colorado as droughts become more drastic and state officials begin to prioritize who gets water and who does not. While water is not yet an issue in the Yampa Valley, it threatens cranes in the San Lois Valley, in southern Colorado. Climate change is threatening a number of migratory species, but some are impacted more than others at this point.
The CCCC is concerned that the reduction of food available will mean that the cranes will spend less time in the Yampa Valley, ultimately reducing a source of ecotourism for the area.
Currently, there are only about 10,000 acres of grain crops in the valley compared to 85,000 in the 1940’s . If grain production continues to decrease, the implications will span further than just seeing fewer cranes. It will have a profound effect on the ecotourism of the valley.
A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service credits $55 billion a year nationally to wildlife and bird watching . To read more about the economic impacts of wildlife watching specifically in Colorado an article by Deborah Anderson sums it up nicely . She reports that in 2006, wildlife watchers paid $8.9 billion in Colorado state taxes, that is a large chunk of money going to local economies!
The CCCC started the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in 2011 to promote crane conservation and its side effect was an influx of people and money into Steamboat’s economy. While it is unknown the exact amount of money the Yampa Valley festival brings in, according to Leigh Ann Vradenburg, the executive director of the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, their festival brought upwards of $2 million dollars into the community over a six day festival . The festival is held during the off season so the influx of money to the community is crucial for local businesses.
The CCCC has stepped up and created a project called Crops for Cranes that aims to not only increase the acreage available for grain production for the cranes but will also provide safe, public viewing areas of the cranes during the annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival.
The project will buy a certain number of acres of grain crops, at market price, from local farmers and private landowners to use as food plots, where crops would be grown but not harvested, for use by the cranes. Farmers would receive a monetary incentive to compensate for loss of harvestable acres. Crops for Cranes works together with a number of local, state, and national organizations to provide education regarding local economics, the sustainable use of environmental resources, and the overall conservation of the Rocky Mountain Population of the Greater Sandhill Cranes . More details of the project can be found at www.coloradocranes.org.
What started out to be an outcry to save the Sandhill Cranes from hunting has turned into an effort to celebrate the crane’s important role in the economy of the Yampa Valley.
 Burditt, G. M. (2012). Crane economics. Valley Voice
 L. A. Vradenburg, personal communication with Nancy Merrill, April 18, 2012
Photo credit for the CCCC logo: http://coloradocranes.net/about-us/
Photo credit for agricultural field: http://www.denverpost.com/2010/10/23/colorado-farmers-reap-one-of-states-biggest-most-profitable-harvests/