There are three subspecies of sandhill cranes which use the Klamath Basin and the broader Pacific Flyway. The largest, the greater sandhill crane breed in the West, mostly south of the Canadian border. The smallest, the lesser sandhill crane breeds in western Alaska, and the least-known subspecies, the Canadian sandhill crane, breeds along the Pacific coast from Vancouver, B.C., Canada north to the Juneau, Alaska area.
A crane fossil from the Pliocene (5.3-2.6 million years ago) found in Nebraska that appears identical to the modern sandhill crane, making it one of the oldest known bird species!
Here in the West, sandhill cranes were historically persecuted during settlement as western areas became states and before cranes were protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which ended commercial crane hunting (but not poaching). Biologists who helped with surveys in the 1850s to determine the best railroad routes to the West documented cranes as common nesting birds in our intermountain regions; sometimes even raised as tame birds in native villages.
As the gold rush and settlement proceeded, many local breeding cranes were killed for food. The rapid migration of settlers in the West created a huge demand for meat and cranes were targeted by the market hunting industry, particularly on their wintering grounds in California, causing crane population to plummet. Additionally, loss of over 90 percent of our Western wetlands also contributed to declining crane numbers.
Cranes went extinct as a breeding species in Washington State in 1941, and only about five pairs remained in California in the mid-1940s. Fortunately, more survived in Oregon, where about 100 pairs were still alive at that time. Most of the surviving cranes in Oregon nested in the Blitzen Valley in Harney County (now part of Malheur Refuge). Peter French, the infamous cattle baron, inadvertently saved Oregon cranes as he kept other settlers from homesteading that vast valley.
Fortunately, with protection from unregulated hunting and habitat provided on refuges and wildlife areas, the Western populations of sandhill cranes have recovered and several thousand now breed in the western states. More than half of the breeding population depends on private lands, primarily in areas where flood-irrigation provides seasonal wetlands they need for successful production.
Klamath County is third in importance to breeding greater sandhill cranes in Oregon, following Harney and Lake counties.
The best local place to see them during the breeding season (April – August) is Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge which hosts over 60 pairs. During spring (mid-February – April) and fall (September – October) migration, the best place to see cranes is Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge as they use the extensive grain fields there for feeding. The birds using Lower Klamath include greater sandhill cranes (primarily birds breeding along the east slope of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington), Canadian sandhills which stage at Sauvie Island Wildlife Area and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near Portland and migrate through the Willamette Valley, and just a few of the Pacific Flyway lessers.