At the annual Conservation Congress meetings held this month in Wisconsin, the question of whether to approve a Sandhill crane hunt was asked once again. In fact, it is raised every year like an ongoing battle that can never be won for more that twelve months at a time.
Operation Migration supports hunting and believes it provides an important service. Mankind has tipped the balance of nature by removing many predators. Without that natural governance, some species can over populate with negative ramifications. Canada geese are a prime example. They were once considered the legends of the fall and their annual migration marked the changing of the seasons with more accuracy than the Farmer’s Almanac. But we interfered with the equilibrium that kept their numbers in check and now they are hated by golfers, park visitors, farmers and anyone who owns waterfront property. In some places, they have reached epidemic numbers and hunting is a good method of restoring the balance.
But it sometimes feels like the hunter’s appetite is insatiable. There is yearly pressure to hunt every avian species from Mourning doves to Tundra swans and it’s not like we are over run with either.
It wasn’t that long ago when Sandhill cranes were on a clear path to extinction. It took them more than seventy years to recover from over hunting, but they are now back on the list. Sandhill cranes lost the vote with 2349 people in favor of a hunt and 2049 against it.
Cranes are not like other game species. Geese begin to breed when they are two years old and average five goslings per season. Wild turkeys reach sexual maturity in ten months and lay as many as eight to twelve eggs at a time. But cranes don’t breed until they are four or five and sometimes as late as eight years old. And they are lucky if one chick survives per season. It can take years to recover from a poor breeding season when snow stays late and food is in short supply or spring floods wash away nests. Hunting quotes are not governed by an individual good or bad breeding season. Instead, the crane census is calculated using distance sampling methods where their numbers are estimated with a wide margin for error. As an example, the annual count of Whooping cranes in their limited winter range in Texas, was estimated at 329 individuals during the winter of 2015/16. Although the confidence interval was set at 95%, the range of birds that may or may not be there, extended from 293 to 371. That’s a spread of almost 80 birds. Counting Sandhill cranes over most of the contiguous states is far more complex with a great margin of error and the effects of hunting during a couple of bad breeding seasons, could dramatically impact a still recovering species like cranes.
Then, of course, there is the concern of Whooping cranes being shot by mistake and that is not a case of if it happens, but when. We have worked closely with Whooping cranes for sixteen years and seen more of them than any hunter. Yet there are times when they are back-lit and appear something less that pure white and even we cannot be sure. Both species use the same habitat and often fly together and a misidentification will happen. More than 20 Whooping cranes in the Eastern Migratory Population have been shot since 2007.
If the laws that protect them were more enforceable, we might be slightly more confident but to be charged under the Endangered Species Act, the prosecutor must be able to prove intent. There must be clear evidence that the shooter knew they were killing an endangered species. “I thought it was an albino Sandhill” can be a sufficient defense. And the birds in Wisconsin are all part of the Eastern Migratory Population that is considered Experimental/ Non-Essential. They have the status of Threatened not Endangered.
Then there is the judicial system – a judge in Indiana who issued a one-dollar fine to a minor who used a rifle to kill the female of the first breeding pair of migratory Whooping cranes to produce a chick in Wisconsin since the last nest was reported in 1878. Each one of those birds represents an investment of over one hundred thousand dollars in privately raised money.
With laws that are expensive to prosecute and difficult to enforce, a judicial system that issues token sentences, a census method with large margins of error, a slow to reproduce species and the inevitable mistaken shooting of a Whooping crane, maybe a little prudence is in order.
Hunters and conservationists are not two different encampments. Both are concerned about the environment and we need to come together someplace in the middle. I saw a bumper sticker in Alabama last week that proudly stated, “I’m a gun totin’ tree hugger.” It’s time for the tree huggers to give the hunters the respect they richly deserve and maybe the hunters can give a reprieve to a couple of species that just made it back from the brink of extinction but could still use a break.
The outcome of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress vote does not mean that the Sandhill crane hunt is approved. There is a long process ahead so if you disagree with the outcome of the vote, make your opinions known to your legislator.
Here’s a map to look up your representative along with their contact information.