By Nicholas Simon
Efforts by politicians to create a hunting season for eastern sandhill cranes in both Wisconsin and Michigan are stirring debates among hunters, farmers and birders.
A Michigan legislative resolution to encourage the Natural Resources Commission to explore the possibilities of issuing tags for cranes was introduced but not adopted. Wisconsin has gone further, where lawmakers introduced a bill in October to require the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to issue permits to eligible hunters for the birds.
If either of these measures passes, it would be the first time the bird has been hunted legally in its breeding grounds since the species was nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s.
Both Wisconsin and Michigan advocates cited the agricultural damage caused by rising numbers of the birds in their state, as well as increased opportunities for hunters as reasons to add the sandhill crane to their lists of state game birds.
However, hunting them is controversial for both birding groups and ornithological associations. They argue that the cranes’ unique ecology has historically made them vulnerable to overhunting.
“This bird wows and delights people,” said Heather Goode, the executive director of Michigan Audubon, the state’s oldest conservation organization.
“It’s widely depicted in art, and it’s the oldest living species at more than 2.5 million years old. True conservationists do not take that history for granted,” Goode said.
Sandhill cranes have the lowest juvenile survival rate of any game bird in North America, with only one in 10 nests producing a chick that survives to adulthood, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. One reason is the time it takes for the birds to reach maturity, with pairs being an average of 4 years old before they can reproduce, it said.
Their low birth rate, paired with increased habitat loss and overhunting during the early 1900s, led to its eradication from a number of Great Lakes states, including Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. By the 1930s, there were only 25 breeding pairs in Wisconsin, according to population counts at the time.
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, like Mark Berres, claim that near-extinction means that the eastern sandhill crane still has problems with genetic diversity, which makes it more susceptible to overhunting.
In an interview with the University of Wisconsin News, Berres said, “We have a pretty good understanding of why the birds are doing so well, but we’re really just starting to figure out the population’s breeding structure. To me it screams ‘don’t touch them.’”
Michigan DNR officials claim that the bird’s destructive behavior towards crops is a sign of resilience and adaptability.
The cranes tend to travel into cornfields from adjacent wetlands and eat the new shoots as they sprout out of the ground in the springtime. Farmers say they can leave large sections of their field bare.
“They’re an adaptable species and they’ve been able to take advantage of available habitats like wetlands and emerging wetlands,” said Barbara Avers, the waterfowl and wetland specialist at the Michigan DNR. “But they are now using agricultural products as an abundant food source, and we are really seeing their numbers take off.”
Despite the rising rates of agricultural destruction, ornithological groups say that’s not an issue because of existing solutions such as repellents that make new plants taste bitter so cranes stay away.
However, the cost of repellent ranges from $6 to $10 per acre, and some farmers are unwilling to take on the added cost and time to treat their crops. The federal government offers a permit to such farmers to kill cranes that are damaging their crops
Federal regulations make it illegal for those hunters to consume meat from the cranes they kill. Instead, carcasses are left in the field to discourage other groups of cranes from coming to that farm.
Hunting groups in both states call that a waste of natural resources and argue that a hunting season would both reduce population numbers for farmers and provide an economic opportunity for the state DNRs.
At an appearance with Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin, Michigan musician and pro-hunting activist Ted Nugent called sandhill cranes “ribeyes in the sky,” referring to his desire to eat them.
In a presentation to the Natural Resources Commission, Nick Green, the public information officer for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said hunters both understand population management strategies and provide funding for habitat restoration.
Green said, “ Numerous game and no-game species have all flourished thanks to funding generated almost exclusively from hunting license sales and the tax on firearms and ammunition.”
At a commission meeting this fall, officials from Michigan Audubon and the Michigan Humane Society said DNR has focused too much on hunters in the past.
Goode said, “Conservation is not a sport, it’s actually a science.”
Molly Tamulevich, the Michigan director for the Humane Society of the United States, said, “In conversations with commissioners, it’s clear that some of you believe that the primary role of the Natural Resources Commission is to serve the fewer than 7% of Michiganders who hold a hunting license.
“In fact, the lens through which the commission’s decisions are made frames Michigan’s wildlife entirely as a resource to be managed by being killed by game license holders,” she said.
Tamulevich said she was frustrated with the lack of representation for Michigan’s growing eco-friendly and non hunting-community, saying that ignores economic benefits produced by birders and native Anishinaabe communities that consider the bird sacred.
“It’s time the decision-making bodies start to pay attention to the voices of Michigan citizens who are heavily invested in their outdoors land and wild areas but chose not to hunt, trap or kill for trophies, cash prizes and bragging rights,” Tamulevich said.