Greater Sandhill Cranes

Greater sandhill cranes are among the most iconic migratory waterbirds of western North America. Commonly considered seasonal harbingers, their movements throughout the predominantly rural landscapes of the Intermountain West are often celebrated with festivals and are timed with seasonal cycles important to agricultural communities.

Sandhill cranes are inextricably linked to ranching and working lands. Their annual life cycles are linked to water availability and hydrologic cycles, especially those provided by irrigated agriculture. Sandhill cranes spend winter months in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. As they move between wintering grounds and breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains and Northern Great Plains, they rely on a network of public and private stopover sites for food and shelter to fuel their annual journeys. Flood-irrigated grass hay provides 60 percent of the wetlands supporting breeding sandhill cranes in the Intermountain West.

Summer breeding habitat and stopover sites are almost always located within the riparian corridors—the “ribbons of green”—that weave across the Intermountain West’s otherwise arid landscape. Cranes are thought to act as an indicator for riparian and wetland ecosystems, as their preferred habitat conditions support a variety of other migratory birds and wildlife.

Since 2016, the IWJV and partners have worked to develop conservation science using sandhill cranes to inform wetland conservation strategies supporting migratory flyways in the Intermountain West. Research has leveraged roughly 150 birds marked with GPS tags and over nine million individual locations to construct detailed breeding distributions and migratory pathways. Results provide new insight into how sandhill cranes use habitat and rely on agricultural practices that support core breeding and migration stopover sites. Long-term habitat monitoring implemented with these studies has identified functional wetland loss (i.e., wetland drying) and agricultural land use change as key threats to populations. This science provides a road map to wetland conservation that prioritizes local actions, benefitting the maintenance of flyway habitat networks sustaining sandhill cranes and associated migratory waterbirds in Western North America.

Working together is always better.

Our staff has a wide range of professional experience, including non-profit management, bird conservation science, spatial ecology, habitat delivery, policy, strategic planning and communications, and contract management.


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