Hunting Wisconsin sandhill cranes could threaten their diversity, survival

Wisconsin sandhill cranes have bounced back from near extinction and a lawmaker wants people to hunt them.

Sandhill cranes eat corn and other seeds from farmers fields. Photo: zenia (Flickr)

But a soon-to-be-published University of Wisconsin study found that the birds are a diverse bunch. Their genetic diversity strengthens their population and researchers worry hunting could eliminate it.

“We’ve found a lot of genetic distinctiveness in small, local populations,” said Mark Berres, an assistant professor of animal sciences at the university and leader of the study. “If you open up a hunting season, you could easily wipe out these populations and all of that genetic variation.”

Berres and his team found substantial genetic variation in both the Wisconsin birds and the greater eastern population, which is all of the sandhill cranes east of the Mississippi River.   Even groups as close as 60 miles to each other have varying genes.

Generally, the more genetic diversity, the better off you are as a species, Berres said.

A uniform gene pool is more susceptible to diseases. As diseases, like West Nile virus and Avian Influenza, spread, bird populations with diverse genes are more resistant.

Genetic diversity also helps populations survive environmental changes.

“The climate is changing, and how these birds can adapt is dependent on their genes,” Berres said. “If there’s only a small amount of birds with genes that could adapt to climate change, than the greater population is at risk.”

Meanwhile Wisconsin state lawmaker Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, is  proposing a sandhill crane hunting season.  His bill is a response to farmer’s complaints about the birds eating corn and other seeds. Minnesota is the only Great Lakes state with a sandhill crane hunting season.

Many environmental groups oppose Kleefisch’s bill. But crop damage is very real, said Karen Gefvert, director of governmental relations at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, which supports a hunting season.

“A lot of farmers have had tremendous crop damage from sandhill cranes,” Gefvert said. “They (cranes) either pull out the seeds, or the fresh shoots, and eat them.”

Joel Kleefisch, a Republican in the Wisconsin Assembly, wants a sandhill crane hunting season. Photo: wisconsin.gov

The federation doesn’t compile statistics on crop damage. But Wisconsin farmers can only be reimbursed if crop damage is from a species that can be hunted, so it’s hurting state agriculture, Gefvert said.

Wisconsin sandhill cranes consisted of about  25 breeding pairs in the 1930s. Today, there are about 20,000 of the birds.

Berres said that they definitely impact farmers’ fields, especially corn. But the 20,000 number is misleading.

“When you say there’s 20,000 in Wisconsin, it sounds like these birds are just everywhere,” Berres said. “But, historically speaking, that’s just a drop in the bucket.”

Numbers alone don’t predict a population’s stability, Berres said.

Researchers still don’t fully understand sandhill crane breeding patterns. The birds don’t reproduce as young or as often as other birds though.

Long-term research by the International Crane Foundation has shown a decline in their reproduction, said Jeb Barzen, director of field ecology with the foundation, which hasn’t taken a stance on the hunting bill.

But Barzen said hunting would not solve the crop damage problem. The foundation recommends farmers treat their corn with a plant-derived substance, Avipel, to discourage the birds.

And many farmers do, Barzen said. In 2006, 14,000 acres were treated with it. That number shot to 76,000 acres last year.

The treatment doesn’t harm the birds. It upsets their guts when they eat it, so they eventually avoid the seeds.

And while some farmers use the treatment, others have already picked up their guns. Gefvert said about 73 permits were issued for farmers to shoot sandhill cranes in 2011.

Regardless of how the bill plays out politically, Berres hopes his research is considered before people start blasting them out of the sky.

“The genetic stuff I’m doing is filling in part of the picture,” Berres said. “Some people will say, ‘what’s a few hundred birds out of 20,000?’ Well, we really don’t know.”

13 thoughts on “Hunting Wisconsin sandhill cranes could threaten their diversity, survival

  1. I think these birds should deffinatly be hunted. They are delicious to eat, and now that they are undangered theres no reason not to. It would be the same at hunting Turkey or Deer.

  2. I think that if you are HUNTING you should be hunting to feed you and your family, not just to kill off a species thats been here alot longer than the human population

  3. I didn’t see anything in the article or comment section that was anti-hunting. I think that the debate has more to do with whether or not the number of Sandhill Cranes is high enough to support a hunting season. Deer are more prolific than the amount of habitat we’ve left for them supports. So, of course, hunting is necessary and beneficial. I’m not sure Sandhill Cranes are at that level or as prolific as deer.

  4. I see the anti-hunting crowd is still alive and well and thumbing their noses at hunters. They still don’t understand that if it wasn’t for the hundreds of Billions, perhaps Trillions, of dollars that hunters have shelled out over many years in license fees and excise taxes on ammo and equipment, most of our game bird and animal populations would be a fraction of what they are currently. Coincidentally non-game populations like sandhill cranes have benefited immensely from the habitat protection and improvements funded by hunters. Yes, admittedly, hunters have provided those funds in order to have game to hunt.

    Would taxpayers, non-hunters and anti-hunters included, have provided the necessary funds to bring critters back from exploited low numbers? I doubt it, we as a society have issues with providing for the poor and disadvantaged of our own species. How much has PETA, HSUS and other anti-hunting, animal rights groups contributed to the welfare of wild animals? Except for a lot of hot air and rhetoric, damn little in comparison to hunters and fishers.

    Sandhill cranes would still be on the threatened list if not for the indirect contribution of hunters. By making them a game species they automatically become entitled to immense funding for scientific study of their biology and populations and management of their habitats, and protection from possible over exploitation. Just for instance, the Keystone Pipeline would run right thru a major crane migration resting and feeding area. Do you think hunters would stand for jeopardizing the welfare of these birds with a tar sand oil spill there. Not likely. The pipeline might get built, but, not in that area.

    Instead of condemning hunters with a knee-jerk reaction, do some historical research and you will find that from the time of President Teddy Roosevelt to the present, hunters and fishers have funded the return of many threatened and over-exploited animal populations to historic highs.

  5. I Like hunting as much as anyone, But we do not have to kill Sandhill Cranes too.

  6. Sandhills are a part of Nature’s Beauty in Wisconsin. To hear their calls is a sure sign that Spring is coming at last, and to see them gathering in the autumn before migrating is a thing of wonder.
    I’ve been told by friends who are farmers that turkeys do far more harm to the fields/crops then sand hill cranes. just leave these beautiful birds alone.

  7. Lets address the facts and the myths. First of all I haven’t been around since the 50’s but I see more and more sandhill cranes each year. If you read any published studies on migratory birds you will hear and see statistics regarding hunting on actual population numbers and realize hunting has little to no effect on bird populations. The single most influential factor to birds numbers is habitat availablity. You must also credit the WI DNR and their efforts for assisting in the population boom, and to support the WI DNR is to hunt and fish as the money obtained through license sales is used to protects the resources we all get to enjoy. Most hunters will recall a time when the Canadian goose was considered threatened, now WI holds one of if not the largest groups of Giant Canadian geese, which are very large “local” birds, and hunting has had no effect on local populations as they continue to spike. I also hear, that well Sandhill’s mate for life. This statement is both true and false. Sandhills form very strong attachments, and pairs have been documented to mate together for many years. That said, it’s also been documented that if one of the pair dies the living parter will find a new partner for the next mating season, this is similar to the Canadian goose. As far as genetic diversity, I do agree that it’s beneficial for the continuation of a species, but to believe that hunters will kill enough birds to actually effect the diversity of the species is a little far fetched, if that were true I would expect all whitetails in WI to have the same genetic makeup as they have been hunted feverishly for decades. You can’t expect 100% success during hunting season, so with a limited number of tags issued and a well regulated hunting season both bird watchers and hunters can continue to watch and enjoy the sandhill’s increase in population.

  8. Right on Mike. IF there is any hunt, it’ll be much ado about nothing in time, similar to the mourning dove hunt. Not many folks will do it in the grand scheme of things, and it’ll likely be very limited by permits, certainly not a free for all. I’ve seen some estimates of as high as 75,000 cranes in Wisconsin, much higher than the figure quoted here. More than a dozen states already offer limited sandhill hunts, and doves are the nation’s most-consumed game bird (I’ve never shot one even though we’ve had a hunt here for about nine years now). I thrill to the sound of sandhills but wouldn’t hesitate to try one if it were allowed. A friend who hunts them in North Dakota said they are absolutely delicious, better than roast beef. I’d rather feed my family wild game and fish than anything store-bought.

  9. Isn’t genetic diversity great? In 1935 there were only 50 cranes in Wisconsin. Not much diversity. Now, there’s so much diversity there’s a need to worry that a hunting season will erode the new diversity.

    Funny, now that a possible hunting season is in the offing the diversity issue is raised.

    Far be it from me accusing Dr. Berres of being an anti-hunter.

    Don’t people realize that hunting is the ultimate “shopping local?”

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