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. 

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