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Sandhill crane standing in marsh.

Sandhill Crane Redux: Part 3

This is the final installment in a three-part series on sandhill cranes exploring their history in Wisconsin, ties to Aldo Leopold, biological behaviors, and contemporary matters. (In case you missed them, click to read part one and part two.) The series first appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of The Leopold Outlook, entitled “Sandhill Crane Redux.” If you enjoy this article, become a member and get future issues of the magazine delivered to your mailbox!

The Hunting Controversy

For Midwestern sandhill cranes, three justifications for opening a fall hunting season have been advanced: First, hunting could reduce the population and limit the damage cranes do to agricultural crops, which some consider to be economically unacceptable. Second, hunting could control the population’s rapid growth, which has resulted in more cranes than some in society are willing to tolerate. Finally, hunting provides the opportunity to harvest a valuable renewable resource, as some in society want more hunting opportunities and cranes are tasty.

Cranes can damage crops in some situations, and losses of corn soon after planting can be an issue for some farmers. Damage is localized to areas with high crane densities and near wetlands, however, and principles of modern wildlife control call for addressing such conflicts where and when they occur, not by reducing the overall regional population. Culling problem birds and using effective chemical taste repellants to prevent damage to freshly planted corn would be more efficient than opening a fall hunting season in which problem birds can’t be specifically targeted.

Two whooping cranes with sandhills in a harvested cornfield.

Two whooping cranes forage in a harvested cornfield with a flock of sandhills not far from the Leopold Shack. Photo courtesy of Steve S. Meyer.

Could there soon be too many cranes, and do we need to control them before they get out of hand? That’s what Leopold unsuccessfully argued was necessary to deal with Wisconsin’s expanding deer population in the 1940s. His advice was not taken, and today deer populations are out of control, just as he predicted. Much of the recent increase in overall crane numbers is the result of cranes expanding their range and occupying new areas. It is not due to continued growth of established populations in prime habitat where the density of breeding pairs has already begun to plateau. As the population has grown, reproduction has started to decline, suggesting the population is regulating itself at densities that don’t seem excessive. Hence, few individuals seem to think there are now, or will ever be too many cranes, and there is no reason to control their numbers.

The real issue seems to be a demand by a few for new hunting opportunities. Some individuals simply want to hunt cranes. Wisconsin’s Conservation Congress (a citizen advisory institution) recently voted in favor of crane hunting, and some politicians seem eager to garner hunters’ support. There is actually no biological reason that sustainable harvesting of cranes couldn’t be done, though it would require careful advance planning and ongoing monitoring. The Lesser Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis canadensis) that breed in the North American Arctic and account for most of the 500,000 or so cranes that migrate down the Central Flyway have been hunted for decades. This is the crane population that gathers each spring in spectacular numbers along the Platte River. So, wildlife managers have years of experience ensuring that crane hunts are sustainable and don’t threaten the population while allowing some birds to be taken annually by hunters.

Although Greater Sandhill Cranes nesting in the upper Midwest have not been hunted as extensively as the mid-continent cranes migrating in the Central Flyway, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the green light for carefully managed hunts in states along the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Tennessee (in 2011) and Kentucky (in 2013) have opened seasons for carefully regulated hunts. Other states within the breeding range and along the migration routes of Midwestern birds may follow.

Despite these justifications, crane hunting is controversial. It is troubling to many conservation-minded individuals because sandhill cranes have become an iconic symbol. As Leopold described it:

He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

There is also the more practical issue of risks to the newly established population of endangered whooping cranes in Wisconsin. Those birds follow the same fall migration routes as Wisconsin’s sandhill cranes. This small founding population is struggling to increase, and even without any legal crane hunting, birds have been killed by careless waterfowl hunters. Mistaken identifications by novice crane hunters would probably result in additional losses that the new whooping crane population can’t afford.

Two sandhill cranes stand along the water.

Photo courtesy of George Nolte.

In the end, deciding whether to hunt sandhill cranes is probably less about could we hunt them safely, and more about should we hunt them at all. Many other species of birds could be hunted for the same reasons given for hunting sandhill cranes. Bald eagles, for example, eat fish that anglers value, have increased dramatically since the 1970s, and would make handsome taxidermy trophies for hunters. But it would be unthinkable to propose a hunting season for eagles, even though wildlife managers could ensure that it wouldn’t threaten their population. I suspect that cranes have achieved the same elevated cultural value and that this now transcends their value as a renewable resource that could be exploited.

When wicked controversies such as this emerge, conservationists often ponder, “What would Aldo Leopold have thought about this issue?” I imagine he would have been thrilled by the sandhill crane’s remarkable recovery, and encouraged that today’s wildlife managers have advanced the field he defined so that we can now manage crane hunts without threatening the species.

I also suspect he would have been heartened to see that the debate has taken on an ethical dimension. 

Feature photo, top, courtesy of Ted Thousand.

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