Washington State Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Crane


Published: June 2002

Pages: 81

Publication number: WDFW 735

Author(s): Carroll D. Littlefield and Gary L. Ivey

Executive Summary

The sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) has been listed as an endangered species by the state of Washington since 1981. Sandhill cranes are represented in Washington by a small number of greater sandhills that breed in Klickitat and Yakima Counties, about 23,000 lesser sandhills that stop in eastern Washington during migration, and 3,000- 4,000 sandhills (Canadians and possibly some lessers and greaters) that stop on lower Columbia River bottomlands. Up to 1,000 sandhills have wintered on lower Columbia bottomlands in recent years, but most of the cranes seen in Washington winter in California. The greater sandhill cranes that breed in Washington are part of the Central Valley Population, so called because they winter in California’s Central Valley. Other members of this population nest in Oregon, California, Nevada, and interior British Columbia. The lesser sandhill cranes are of the Pacific Flyway Population that stop during migration on the way to breeding grounds in Alaska or wintering areas in California. The Canadian sandhill cranes have not been defined as a population, and recent studies of the mid-continent population suggest that they may not differ genetically from greaters. Some breed along the coast of central British Columbia and winter in Washington, while some stop during migration en route to wintering areas in California. Further studies are needed to clarify their status and distribution.

The historical distribution of breeding cranes in Washington was poorly documented, but the few historical accounts mention breeding in south-central, northeastern and southeastern regions, and the southern Puget Sound Basin. Crane numbers had been severely reduced due to widespread habitat destruction concurrent with human settlement, and perhaps more importantly, unregulated hunting which continued until passage of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1916. The species was extirpated as a breeder from the state after 1941 when the last nest was documented at Signal Peak, Yakima County, in south-central Washington. Some 31 years later, they were again found summering in the Glenwood Valley on Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Klickitat County in 1972, but it was not until 1979 that nesting was confirmed. A total of 19 territorial pairs was documented in 2000: 16 at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge; and 1 each on Yakama Indian Nation lands, Yakima County; Panakanic Valley, Klickitat County; and on Washington Department of Natural Resource (WDNR) lands along Deer Creek, Yakima County. The total summer population in Washington in 2000 was 53 birds. No nests produced chicks to fledging age in 2001, probably due to factors relating to drought conditions; the total summer population was 50.

Factors affecting Washington’s breeding greater sandhills include predation, incompatible grazing and haying practices, water availability and management, and habitat loss. Crane habitat on the lower Columbia bottomlands between Vancouver and Woodland is threatened with industrial development, conversion of agricultural lands to cottonwood plantations, tree nurseries, or other incompatible uses and crane use is affected by disturbance by hunters and other recreationists.

The goal of the recovery plan is to restore a healthy breeding population of cranes and to maintain the flocks that winter or stop in Washington. To reach this goal, this plan calls for expansion of the breeding range of greaters into former breeding areas in eastern Washington and protection of habitat for crane wintering and staging during migration. The Plan identifies recovery objectives that must be reached, and outlines strategies to use in meeting them before down-listing of the species to threatened or sensitive can occur.

The sandhill crane will be considered for down-listing from State Endangered to State Threatened status when the state’s overall breeding population reaches at least 65 territorial pairs with an average annual recruitment rate of >8%, and effective water management control is established at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The sandhill crane will be considered for down-listing to State Sensitive when the state’s breeding population reaches at least 130 territorial pairs with an average annual recruitment rate of >8%, and habitat used by cranes at the major staging sites in eastern Washington is protected through management agreements or easements. Also, for down-listing to sensitive, habitat needed to maintain 2,000 migrant and 500 wintering cranes should be secured and managed for cranes on the lower Columbia River bottomlands in Washington. Recovery objectives may need to be updated as better information is available about habitat needs.

Suggested citation

Littlefield, C. D., and G. L. Ivey. 2002. Washington State Recovery Plan for the Sandhill Crane. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 71 pages.

Draft documents

Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.