Sandhill cranes fill against the backdrop of Mount St. Helens. Photo by Adam Stunkel
The recent conservation of 541 acres in the Vancouver Lake lowlands leaves space for iconic sandhill cranes.

There has been much talk of cranes throughout the Portland-Vancouver metro area in recent months, though rarely the wild kind. Towering machines punctuate Portland’s skyline, highlighting the region’s rapid growth. A recent United Van Lines study determined that in 2015 Oregon was the most popular moving destination in America for the third straight year, with Washington finishing in the top ten. Of course, stories of migration are nothing new to the Pacific Northwest. Salmon and bird migrations have been taking place here since time immemorial.

Sandhill crane, photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Sandhill crane, photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Though increasingly defined by urban districts, the lower Columbia River region includes a vast network of floodplain lakes, wetlands, and sloughs that extend along the Washington and Oregon shorelines from the city of Vancouver north to the mouth of the Lewis River. This area serves as a vital pit stop and wintering ground on the vast Pacific Flyway, a migratory route spanning two continents, from the Arctic to Patagonia. Each year, more than a billion birds travel at least a portion of the corridor. Tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl stage (stop over to rest and feed along their journey) in the lower Columbia River region, including geese, swans, and sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis).

With their severe red brows, slender beaks, silver wings, and long black legs, which serve as impressive landing gear, sandhill cranes exude a compelling combination of grit and grace. Their distinctive rolling r‑r‑r‑r call sounds like something out of “Jurassic Park.” Perhaps that’s because relatives of cranes have roamed the skies since the Eocene. As a species, sandhill cranes have changed little in the past 2.5 million years.

Various crane species have been revered in cultures throughout the world, from ancient Egypt to Bhutan. In modern-day North America, sandhill cranes hold a special place in the hearts of avid birders and casual observers alike. “It’s hard to explain,” said Dr. Gary Ivey, research associate at the International Crane Foundation. “Watching cranes is almost a religious experience. There are many parallels to human behavior—they’re social, they dance, and they are very ritualistic. There’s something spiritual in their nature.”

The lower Columbia River region is the sole fall staging area for one of North America’s smallest population of sandhill cranes, which migrate between breeding sites in Haida Gwaii, along coastal British Columbia, and wintering sites in California’s Central Valley*. While many Oregon and Washington populations were extirpated by the 1940s, some 5,000 sandhill cranes have persevered, adapting to stage in corn fields and other flat farmland as seasonal wetland habitat disappeared. Today, sandhill cranes are listed as endangered in the state of Washington.

cranes fly over the newly conserved property in the Vancouver Lake lowlands

Sandhill cranes fly over the newly conserved property in the Vancouver Lake lowlands

In late 2015, Columbia Land Trust was eager to act when presented with an opportunity to take ownership of more than 500 acres of wildlife habitat in the Vancouver Lake lowlands, a subset of the lower Columbia River region. The Port of Vancouver USA donated 541 acres to Columbia Land Trust along with $2 million in funding for initial restoration efforts and $5 million for the long-term stewardship of the land. The port and nonprofit Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment (CRANE) began discussions in 1992 concerning the development of more than 1,000 acres of the port’s Columbia Gateway property. These discussions culminated in an agreement to transfer 541 acres of the land to Columbia Land Trust for conservation. Under the Land Trust’s management, the land will continue to be farmed for grains, affording cranes both food and flat, open staging areas.

The property builds on regional conservation lands, including Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Shillapoo Wildlife Area, and Oregon’s Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. Together, these lands will provide an important haven for the cranes at a time when development in other parts of Clark County is rapidly replacing traditional resting and feeding areas. “Protecting these cranes is critical from a biological perspective,” offered Ivey, “but they’re also an iconic species and a poster child for farm-friendly conservation.”

Plans for the newly conserved land do not include direct public access, as a human presence on the property would disrupt birds’ landing, feeding, and resting patterns. In the coming months, the Land Trust will explore the potential for establishing viewing blinds that look out on the property from adjacent lands. If all goes as planned, local residents could have a new opportunity to observe and draw inspiration from these majestic birds for years to come.

 

*editor’s note: As crane habitat in California disappears, an increasingly large portion of this flock (as much as half) are overwintering in the Columbia River lowlands. This trend further underscores the importance of habitat conservation in this region.