Is Hunting Sandhill Cranes Truly Necessary?

Conservation efforts once saved the iconic bird from extinction. Now, Wisconsin lawmakers want to legalize hunting them again.

I was sitting in a tree stand outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, waiting for an early bow season buck when a prehistoric trumpeting grabbed my attention. The sound grew louder and louder, and then descended upon me like a crashing wave as a flock of sandhill cranes landed in the field below. Each five feet tall, with sandy white feathers and a splash of red on the head, these majestic birds mesmerized me as I watched them search the ground for seed and insects.

Last October, Wisconsin state senators proposed SB 620, a bill that would require the state Department of Natural Resources to establish a hunting season for sandhill cranes. Photo by John Carrel.

I’m not the only one who’s been taken by the beauty of sandhill cranes. “[Their] call evokes a sense of wilderness. It transports you to a different time and place,” says Carl Schroeder, a board member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

But where some see beauty and wilderness, others see these birds as a nuisance and economic liability. Last October, Wisconsin state senators proposed SB 620, a bill that would require the state Department of Natural Resources to establish a hunting season for sandhill cranes. The bill’s supporters say sandhill cranes cause trouble for Wisconsin farmers by damaging crops. Conservation groups, like the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, oppose the bill, saying it could be disastrous for Wisconsin’s population of greater sandhill cranes.

Like wolves in the state, sandhill cranes have entered the crosshairs of hunting lobbyists as the migratory bird’s numbers have recovered in recent decades. A century ago, sandhill cranes were on the brink of extinction. By the 1930s, hunting and habitat destruction had almost eliminated sandhill cranes from Wisconsin. By this point, breeding sandhill cranes had disappeared from many other states along the migratory bird’s Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, which comprise the eastern population of greater sandhill cranes.

Over time, federal protection via laws like the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other conservation efforts saved the sandhill crane. Today, killing sandhill cranes is illegal, except when the bird gets into trouble with farmers.

In Wisconsin, farmers can acquire a federal permit to hunt sandhill cranes that destroy crops. Each spring, farmers lose crops to cranes that feed on sapling plants. In 2019, for instance, Wildlife Services in Wisconsin received 162 complaints regarding sandhill crane damage to crops, with reported damages estimated at $1.2 million. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, during spring a single sandhill crane can eat 400 kernels of corn per day. It would take only three days for a flock of 100 birds to eat the equivalent of an 8-acre field, that’s 240,000 kernels of corn. Todd Schaller, vice president of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, which supports the bill, says around 1,000 cranes are “removed through depredation” in Wisconsin each year. However, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension, there is no existing research that shows that these hunting permits are effective at controlling crop damages.

Conservationists say a hunting season in the sandhill crane’s core eastern breeding grounds could harm populations of a species that was pulled back from the brink of extinction relatively recently. Photo by Photo by Brian Henderson.

Some researchers have tried to promote non-lethal approaches to deterring sandhill cranes from crop fields. One method is the use of a nontoxic chemical called Avipel. Germinating corn treated with Avipel becomes distasteful to sandhill cranes and encourages the bird to pick another source of food, like waste corn or insects. Research has shown that the cost of using Avipel is only 10 percent of the damage costs of an untreated field.

SB 620 would introduce a fall sandhill crane hunting season — adding to a list of other proposed bills known as the “sporting freedom” package that aims to deregulate hunting and wildlife management in Wisconsin. Hunter Nation, the lobbying group that has been loud in Wisconsin’s wolf hunt debates, has worked closely with the state’s Republican senators to introduce these bills.

Wisconsin wouldn’t be the first state to hunt sandhill cranes. Seventeen states allow crane hunting, though mostly in the more populous mid-continent and Rocky Mountain sandhill crane populations. Three states that contain the eastern population currently have open seasons on cranes: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. Wisconsin is now in the running to be the fourth.

According to Kevin Kelly, chief communications officer for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, sandhill crane numbers continue to increase, even since the state’s first hunting season in 2011. Jamie Feddersen of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency says that “complaints of crop damage have gone down” since Tennessee had its first season in 2013. Wisconsin lawmakers have taken these examples as signs of success.

However, conservationists and scientists in Wisconsin are not so sure. According to Schroeder, about two-thirds of the eastern population of sandhill cranes breed in Wisconsin. The state is also a staging area for cranes that migrate from Canada and other states around the Great Lakes.

Scientists and conservationists in the state say that they weren’t adequately consulted by the authors of SB 620. The website of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology says that “even a carefully regulated autumn hunt would not be effective to cranes causing spring crop damage.” Advocates at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) fear that a hunting season in the eastern population’s core breeding grounds could significantly harm the crane population. Sandhill cranes reproduce slowly, with each pair producing a surviving hatchling about once every three years. The ICF is also concerned that hunters may accidentally kill endangered whooping cranes, which are often found with and can easily be identified as sandhill cranes.

Even as a hunter myself, I’m struck with obvious questions that Wisconsin’s lawmakers seem to be evading. Is hunting sandhill cranes truly science-based wildlife management? Is it an effective strategy, or even an ethical thing to do? Is this a bid to protect the animal — our sense of wilderness — or to protect crops, the economy?

At this point, it’s unclear when the state legislature plans to vote on the bill. But when that time comes, can all these questions be answered?

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