Sandhill Cranes Lose Vote in Wisconsin

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.

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  1. Barb May 1, 2017 8:42 am

    How wonderful Catherine, that your Rep actually read your letter. Let’s hope that her opinion carries weight with other State Reps.

  2. Catherine Wohlfeil April 30, 2017 8:29 pm

    I recently contacted my state representatives relative to the Sandhill crane hunt issue and received the below response from Representative Hesselbein. Due to origin from a third party, I wasn’t sure if this would be appropriate to post, however, if not, I wanted to pass it along for use in support of any legislative endeavors undertaken by Operation Migration. —

    Dear Catherine,

    Thank you for taking the time to email me with your opposition to a bill authorizing the hunting of Sandhill cranes. I appreciate the opportunity to hear from you.

    Rest assured, I will oppose any legislation should it come to a vote in the Assembly. As you may know, this proposal has come up in the legislature before as 2011 Assembly Bill 613, which was introduced and sent to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, but a hearing was never held and there was no committee or floor action. As a member of this session’s Assembly Natural Resources & Sporting Heritage Committee, I assume I will see the proposal should it be introduced again.

    Proponents of this proposal must realize that there is room for confusion between the whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes that could lead to mistaken kills. While I am a supporter of Wisconsin’s hunting traditions, I want to ensure that the sport does not interfere with the protection of endangered species and the overall preservation of our state’s abundant natural resources. It is good for me to have your opinion on hand should it call for my action.

    Thank you again for getting in touch with me. Please feel free to do so again if there is a way I can be of assistance to you on this or any other matter.


    From: cwohlfeil
    Sent: Tuesday, April 11, 2017 9:37 PM
    To: Rep.Hesselbein
    Subject: Sandhill Crane Hunt

    I recently attended a Conservation Congress hearing and see that there is a proposal for a Sandhill Crane hunt.

    My concern as to the initiation of a crane hunt would not only be the loss of these beautiful birds, but that the Whooping Crane, which is an endangered species, tends to migrate in the midst of flocks of Sandhill Cranes. Even an experienced crane biologist can have difficulty telling Whooping Cranes from Sandhills in certain lighting conditions such as early and late, which are the normal hunting hours.

    It takes four years for a Whooping Crane to mature sufficiently enough to mate and lay eggs and with the effects of decreased natural habitat, predation, power line and vehicle collision hazards, survivability to maturity is difficult at best.

    Despite the efforts currently underway in the reestablishment of this species, the loss of even one of these rare and endangered species is too high a cost to pay. Don’t let these amazing angels of the sky disappear from this planet. Do what you can to save the cranes.
    Thank you.
    Catherine Wohlfeil

    • Heather Ray May 1, 2017 5:50 am

      Thanks for sharing Catherine!

  3. Timothy April 15, 2017 7:10 pm

    In certain areas of Wisconsin, with proper management, a Sandhill Crane hunting season is sustainable. My big concern is that today’s Wisconsin Republicans do not believe in resource management. Therefore, I would say “no”.

    • James.vandenboogard April 15, 2017 10:21 pm

      You are wrong about Republicans. I am one and believe strongly in resource management of our natural resources.

      • Barb April 16, 2017 2:56 pm

        Hello James, I’m a Republican and truly believe we must treasure and protect our land and resources. The Republicans I know feel the same way. Maybe you’re hanging around the wrong Republicans:):).

  4. Beverly Ashley April 15, 2017 12:46 pm

    I live in Nebraska, and every year going with our extended families to view the cranes is one of spectacular beauty. Please, please, don’t mess with these great creatures who already have so much to overcome to survive a season.

  5. Christopher Nixon April 14, 2017 1:52 am

    Excellent assessment of the situation Joe! I hope the hunt doesn’t ultimately get approved. I eat venison and have no problem with that – these days. Deer are thankfully now abundant (over abundant) from good management practices but they are fecund. I just don’t think species such as cranes with very limited reproductive potential are good candidates for being a game species.

  6. Marcia Colsmith April 14, 2017 1:05 am

    Hubby and I went and voted no on the sandhill crane hunting, but I guess we needed 300+ more people to do so. We KNOW the legislature is full of greedy jerks so they will be sure to vote to kill everything not nailed down.

  7. Donna Mead April 13, 2017 4:32 pm

    How can you in all good conscience vote for hunting and killing this beautiful crane that is almost an extinct species. They don’t breed until they are 4 or 5 years old and sometimes not until they are 8 years old. A couple of bad years and they could easily be on the endangered list or worse yet extinct. They also look similar to the whooping crane that is on the endangered list and these beautiful birds could easily be mistaken for the other. If we don’t protect our wildlife for our children, who will! I can understand killing if overpopulated and culling out the sick, but this is not the case and you need to put a stop to it!

  8. Barb April 13, 2017 11:23 am

    I know this was posted but I can’t seem to remember the details. Would some one be so kind to jog an old memory? This state wide vote of about 6000 people just represents those who attended the meetings in each County. Correct? So now what happens? Will it go to a State wide vote? Surely about 6000 people can’t dictate what a whole State does with regard to anything, much less hunting.

  9. Dorothy N April 13, 2017 10:33 am

    Since the Wisconsin Fish and Wildlife have been quite involved in the whooping crane restoration maybe they should be responsible to (hopefully) educate and (minimally) inform all hunters about the fact that there are no “albino sandhill cranes” and publicize that large white birds that look like sandhills and may be hanging out WITH sandhills, arean Endangered Species, NOT sandhills and must not be shot — even accidentally. This should especially be done in the counties where the whoopers breed and are most often seen. Flyers, billboards, special license requirements that informs hunters of the whooping cranes’ perilous status and the work that is being done??? Also, they should educate the dang judges!!

    Would it be possible for the Wisconsin Fish and Wildlife to disallow sandhill hunting in certain counties where the whoopers are most prevalent??

    Just some thoughts about the situation should it be decided that the hunt should take place. You’ve probably already thought of all of these. . .

    • Barb April 13, 2017 11:25 am

      Absolutely! The Fish and Wildlife must participate in this mess.

  10. GOC April 13, 2017 9:32 am

    Down with the McKittrick rule!
    If they can’t properly identify a species, they should NOT be pulling the trigger. Enough free rides for incompetent hunters.

    • Barb April 13, 2017 11:28 am

      You are right, GOC, If you don’t know what you are shooting, you shouldn’t be shooting. OOPS is not good enough when it comes to any endangered animal.

  11. Patty Penner April 13, 2017 8:15 am


  12. Susan White April 13, 2017 8:07 am

    We spend millions of dollars trying to ensure our wildlife will survive…then we hunt them? What is wrong with this picture?

    • Matt April 13, 2017 3:02 pm

      There’s a lot wrong with that picture ! But I am not going to go into detail here. I could write a book on that with facts and data collected through the years of research.

  13. Catherine Wohlfeil April 12, 2017 10:35 pm

    The voting results are sad indeed. I have emailed my legislators. Hope this helps.

  14. Matt April 12, 2017 10:28 pm

    Mankind has tipped the balance of nature by removing many predators. Without that natural governance, some species can over populate with negative ramifications. You just said the reason why Mr. Joe Duff. Hunting just makes it worst. Human population have out paced animals by far, forcing some animals to go no where but your back yard. The land is being gobbled up. If these animals don’t adapt because of us, we will lose many species in 15-20 years time. You have collisions with power lines everywhere, you have windmills in the paths of migratory birds, list goes on and on. There is no balance because we threw it off. Its not even safe for whooping cranes to migrate anymore without some not making it. You have an over populated coyote problem in many areas , you have this and you have that. Where is this going to stop. Someone is going to have to put their foot down . Thank you for your time Mr. Joe Duff, GREAT JOB with ALL you folks do.

  15. Barb April 12, 2017 9:49 pm

    This post was so difficult for me to read. In fact I could only read half, then finish later. I get hunting. We raise Labradors Reyreivers, and I expect every single pup to have the instinct to sight a shot bird, and retrieve it with a soft mouth, so the bird may be consumed. Yet, I have never hunted. I don’t think I could kill a living being. So, in a sense I am on both sides of the fence. That bring said, hunting is a Sport. Where is the sport in killing animals that are so limited that each and every one is so very valuable? There is indeed a difference between hunting a deer, and hunting Sandhill Cranes which will result in the slaughter of Whooping Cranes, not if, but when. Perhaps that is the message that should be sent to the voters of Wisconsin. Americans are outraged when endangered animals are hunted in Africa, for instance, yet here, the mind set is different. It seems beyond reason that 2349 people should decide that fate of hunting in Wisconsin.

  16. Karen Lodholz April 12, 2017 3:32 pm

    NO Sandhills Crane hunting!

  17. Lynnette Haemmerle April 12, 2017 12:04 pm

    No Sandhill Crane hunting.

  18. Deb Potts April 12, 2017 10:50 am

    Just a thought…please change wording so in case people quote this, like I do, the message is correct…”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.” Shouldn’t it be can NOT be a sufficient defense..maybe should NOT?
    Other than that, thank you for all you do in keeping the science out there.

    • Heather Ray April 12, 2017 11:29 am

      “I thought it was a Sandhill crane” is indeed sufficient defense.

  19. molly nicaise April 12, 2017 10:14 am

    It’s a sad day for Wisconsin. We’re a small nonprofit in Madison and work in Haiti. It’s an incredibly deforested country – and this means no birds. We’re working our tails off to help replant income-providing crops (coffee and cacao), in an effort to reforest Haiti’s mountains to help retain water, offer soil stability, and yes, bring back the birds. We’re SPOILED here.

  20. Sidney April 12, 2017 10:09 am

    I think it is time that we who care ensure that we get everyone we know who also cares to the polls to vote. That is the only place where we can be sure of a win if we have the votes. Being on the right side doesn’t seem to be enough any more.

  21. RadAudit1 April 12, 2017 8:17 am

    Years ago, the US stopped naming submarines after fish and switched their names to states. Maybe this year you can name the new cranes after some Wisconsin towns. Invite the town council out to see the bird released. Might get some favorable publicity / involvement at the town level.

    The reason for the name switch? Fish don’t vote. Neither do cranes.

    • Barb April 12, 2017 9:33 pm

      This is an excellent idea. What town would want “Their” Whooping Crane shot?

    • Christopher Nixon April 14, 2017 1:47 am

      RadAudit1 That is an awesome idea!

  22. Dana Courtney April 12, 2017 7:43 am

    Thanks for helpful info to let us know the scoop. What matters in one area of the country, matters in other areas, I believe. Dana in NC

  23. Theodore J Schott April 12, 2017 6:55 am

    NO Sandhill Crane hunting!