Proposed Sandhill Crane Hunt

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.

For a county-by-county listing of locations for the April 10th hearings, see the DNR webpage

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  1. Barb April 2, 2017 10:40 am

    Peter Smith has a great idea… educating the public the difference between Sandhill Cranes and Whooping Cranes is needed. A question… would hunting the Sandhill Crane be for only the sport of it or do people actually eat them, say as is done with geese or ducks.

    • Heather Ray April 3, 2017 5:06 am

      They are consumed.

  2. Al Shook March 29, 2017 11:54 pm

    I apologize , I was wrong about 2011. It was 2012 question # 69
    In 2015 it was question # 95

  3. Al Shook March 29, 2017 11:37 pm

    Here’s the truth about April 10th. This question has been asked twice before statewide, once in 2011 and again in 2015. It passed a statewide advisory vote both times. Once again this question is seeking feedback this year. The “Spring Hearing ” is held in every county in the State if Wisconsin April 10th. The meeting begins at 7pm at all locations. The only way a Sandhill hunting season can happen in Wisconsin is if the law is changed in Madison. Currently, no legistration is being put forward by any State Senator or Representative.
    I encourage all interested people to attend these hearings. Meetings last about two hours if you stay until the end. You can vote on all of the questions and leave before the meeting ends.
    Please consider attending, all feedback is important and welcomed.
    I know these things because I am currently the Vice Chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and also the Chair of the WCC Migratory committee.
    Please check the WDNR website and search “Spring Hearing”

  4. Susanne Shrader March 29, 2017 8:50 pm

    Wow, that was one of the most cogent and inspiring expositions I have ever read.

  5. Ann Smth March 28, 2017 8:04 am

    Hoping craniacs will show up in force on April 10 to protect our cranes. There are many important questions this year, the crane hunt is Q #80. Metallic mining, large capacity wells, and stewardship funding are all addressed. Please attend your county meeting and vote!

  6. Peter Smith March 27, 2017 7:28 pm

    Thank you for this update, Joe. When the story ran some weeks ago, I said I thought shooting sandhill cranes was like shooting fish in a barrel (big, slow moving bird). For all the reasons you clearly articulate, hunting sandhill cranes puts our whoopers at risk.

    IF this law passes, my strong suggestion would be to do a public education campaign, even creating (if we can) some training films for hunters at distinguishing between the two birds. I do believe in the decency of most hunters, and I think if we really get to them on a local level with information about these two different birds, we can make a difference. Intl. Crane Foundation of Baraboo has done some great crane educational video, and I would think that they might be able to assist with this.

    Even if this law doesn’t pass, I still advocate for developing an effective education dvd that we can give to hunting course instructors to use with their students, and to share at other Ducks Unlimited gatherings and the like. IF hunters know more about our whoopers, perhaps they’ll pause when a bird gets up and flies before aiming/shooting, and keep their distance when they see our big whites in the wetlands.

  7. Vicky Van Straten March 27, 2017 2:24 pm

    Are you sure the date is April 10th? I am a poll worker in Lincoln County and our election date is Tuesday, April 4. Please check for me. Thanks.

    • Heather Ray March 28, 2017 6:31 am

      From the DNR page: On Monday, April 10, there will be 72 public hearings, one in each county starting at 7:00 p.m.