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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Part of Okanogan County wildlife area closes to protect first endangered sandhill cranes to nest in the Methow Valley

A flock of sandhill cranes forage near West Richland, Wash., in March 2014. A mating pair of the cranes has been discovered for the first time near the Methow Valley, closing a portion of a 34,500-acre wildlife refuge in Okanogan County.  (Bob Brawdy / The Tri-City Herald/AP photo)

A portion of the Methow Wildlife Area has been closed through September to protect a pair of nesting cranes identified as endangered in Washington, the first known to have mated in the Methow Valley.

The two sandhill cranes have returned to the spot in the 34,500-acre protected area off Highway 20 between Winthrop and Mazama just northwest of Twisp for the second straight year. The pair gave birth to two colts that died after hatching in 2021, but game officials are hoping closing a 240-acre section of the reserve will bolster the chances of a surviving hatchling this year.

“We don’t have confirmation if they have laid eggs, but they are nesting in the area,” said Staci Lehman, a spokesperson for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in Eastern Washington.

Sandhill cranes are large, gangly birds. They’re mostly gray with red caps and can live 20 years or more. Pairs mate for life, and while nesting occurs in other areas of Washington state, this is the first recorded instance of a mating pair nesting in the Methow Valley, Lehman said.

The birds have been identified as a species of greatest conservation need under Washington state law. Officials have recognized 40 mating pairs in Washington state, mostly in Klickitat and Yakima counties, according to the Department of Fish & Wildlife.

“To have a pair nesting on the Methow Wildlife Area at the Big Valley Unit for the second year in a row is not only rare and exciting, but also a promising advancement in the recovery of this species in Washington (state),” Brandon Troyer, manager of the Methow Wildlife Area for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, wrote in an email.

The closure encompasses several miles of a loop trail in the wildlife preserve, as well as an area that has in recent years been farmed for grain on contract with the Department of Fish & Wildlife, Lehman said.

“That’s part of the reason these cranes are attracted to that area,” she said. “It’s an easy source of food for them.”

The trailhead remains open, and birders (including those interested in making the three-hour trip from the Spokane area) are encouraged to remain a respectful distance from the cranes if they wish to try to spot them.

“We all want to sneak a peek at these amazing birds, but to a sandhill crane, humans are predators and that’s why it’s so important to be mindful of the closure boundaries,” Troyer wrote.

There are some pullouts along Highway 20 in the area, as well as locations near the loop trail that remain open. Lehman suggested bringing hiking boots and binoculars.

“We want them to give the birds some space because we want them to come back,” she said.