On April 10th, the people of Wisconsin will vote on whether or not to allow Sandhill cranes to be hunted. That question has been asked before and, although it has not been approved in the past, the pressure to add them to the list of game species grows as their numbers increase.
It wasn’t long ago that most people thought Sandhill cranes were doomed to extinction but now they are the most common wildlife we see around White River Marsh. A generation earlier, that story of remarkable recovery is also true of Canada geese. When I was young, a honking chevron high overhead foretold of spring or the coming of snow and was rare enough to cause folks to pause and point.
There are an estimated seven million Canada geese in North America and the birds we once thought of as legends of the fall are now referred to as flying carp. That transition from magnificent wildlife to golf course pest was driven by numbers. A pair of geese on a local pond is an inspiring sight but 500 on the same pond will foul the habitat, disturb the peace, and pollute the water. We reintroduced Canada geese when the numbers were low, but geese are like cranes – they learn migration behavior from their parents. We also built more parks and golf courses, and pushed out most of their natural predators like foxes, wolves, and coyotes. We tipped nature out of balance and left it unchecked, and now many people hate geese.
The North American population of Sandhill cranes is up to 700 thousand and growing. Already they are referred to as “reverse seed drills” as some farmers report how adept they are at walking up the rows of freshly planted corn, pulling out the kernels as efficiently as the planters can deposit them. I worry that as the numbers grow, these icons of wildness and their story of recovery from the edge of extinction will begin to tarnish and a once magnificent creature will turn into a pest in the eyes of the public.
Still, their numbers are not nearly high enough yet and they are already hunted in 17 US states. Sandhill and Whooping cranes use the same habitat and the chance of misidentifying them is real. Even for experts, a white crane backlit against an even whiter sky can look grey. The vast majority of hunters are wildlife enthusiasts, respectful of the rules, and the ethics of hunting. But, even if there is no misidentification, a Sandhill shot at a popular roosting site will deter a Whooping crane from ever returning to that once safe haven. There are precious few roosting sites for cranes now. Wetlands represent only a small fraction of the habitat in Wisconsin, and mass disturbance will increase that shortage.
There is a good argument for allowing the hunting of many species and, to be perfectly honest, the hunting organizations pay for a good portion of the conservation work done in Wisconsin. Groups like Ducks Unlimited protect habitat, plus funds from hunting licence fees and taxes on ammunition go to support conservation. Hunting can help restore the balance when natural predators are removed and populations of prey species explode. Eventually the hunting of Sandhill cranes might be necessary but we are not there yet. There are other ways to mitigate crop losses. And, with only a hundred Whooping cranes in the eastern flock, accidental shooting or disturbance could be the difference between survival and failure.
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