The obstacles to survival for the federally endangered whooping cranes that have been reintroduced into Wisconsin since 2000 are enormous—natural predators, the duress and perils of migration, powerlines and poisons, accidental (or deliberate) shooting…and the list goes on. Now, a new threat faces the “experimental flock” of these iconic white birds—the prospect of a sandhill crane hunt in Wisconsin.
From reliable sources, I learn that a proposal to hunt sandhill cranes will be entertained by the Wisconsin Legislature in January 2013. The proposal is a resurrection of a bill proposed in 2012.
The whooping crane is one of the world’s rarest birds. The entire species was on the brink of extinction in the 1940s, when a mere 16 birds were counted at their wintering grounds on the coast of Texas. The whooping crane, or whooper, has made a slow recovery in the intervening 70 years, but the numbers remain precariously low—approximately 500 birds in total –of which about 150 are in captivity. Tremendous threats to the species persist not only in their wintering area of coastal Texas, where drought conditions and overuse of fresh-water in the coast’s rivers have impacted the health of the birds’ wintering habitat, but also near their breeding grounds (tar sand extraction) and along their migratory route. More than 100 wild whoopers reside in Wisconsin, thanks to the sustained and heroic efforts of a variety of conservation partners. The Wisconsin flock represents almost 1/3 of the entire wild whooper population!
Every year since 2000, a handful of whooping cranes, carefully hand-raised in captivity, have been released at several wetland sites in central –and more recently eastern –Wisconsin. Some of these birds are painstakingly trained to fly—and eventually migrate–behind ultralight aircraft, an effort undertaken by a non-profit organization, Operation Migration. The young birds’ epic journeys from Wisconsin to Florida behind ultralight planes have been eagerly tracked each year by countless thousands of U.S. citizens for the twelve years since inception of the project.
Other young whooper chicks raised from eggs (from captive birds) in “isolation” from humans by costumed keepers from the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, have been released directly into large wetland complexes inhabited by sandhill cranes—Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and Horicon Marsh. This “Direct Autumn Release” method for whooping cranes is simple, effective and less costly, as the young whoopers generally follow other cranes –both sandhill and older whooping cranes–in late fall from the release areas to wintering grounds in the southern US, thereby learning the migration route that they then remember from year to year.
When whooping cranes were close to extinction in the 1940s, the Midwestern population of sandhill cranes was in no better shape. The species had been nearly wiped out by intensive hunting pressure and habitat destruction, and only two dozen pairs were counted in Wisconsin by students of Professor Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin.
It is a true success story that the Wisconsin sandhill crane population has rebounded from near extirpation in the 1930s to a healthy and thriving population today, thanks to a concerted conservation effort. In the 30-plus years since I helped organize the annual Wisconsin crane counts in the late 1970s, the population has increased dramatically. Naturally, based on population numbers alone, one is inclined to think that a sandhill crane hunt is safe and appropriate for the species… and it might be, were it not for the presence throughout the state of a nascent population of repatriated whooping cranes!
Our federal and state governments, as well as a handful of conservation organizations, have spent millions of dollars since 2000 bringing whooping cranes back to Wisconsin, where they once occurred naturally before being extirpated through uncontrolled hunting, habitat destruction, and egg collecting over 100 years ago. I know well the passion, financial costs and “sweat equity” involved in this reintroduction effort, having been involved with a statewide organization that raised substantial sums of money for the project since its inception.
Not only do whooping cranes and sandhill cranes look alike from a distance, especially in very limited or bright light, but whoopers are almost always embedded in flocks of sandhills during fall migration. In fact, our whooping crane caretakers have encouraged whoopers to commingle with sandhill cranes using the Direct Autumn Release reintroduction technique in the state; this technique entails releasing young-of-year whoopers into marshes inhabited by sandhill cranes. Young whoopers are brown in late summer and early fall, gradually acquiring adult plumage through the winter months. A young whooper is easily be mistaken for a sandhill crane, especially when it is embedded in a flock of them!
“Wildlife watchers” are an expanding demographic in Wisconsin and across the country, bringing vital tourism dollars to communities near wildlife refuges and other protected areas. Waterfowl concentrations such as flocks of sandhill cranes and the occasional wild whooping crane are prized and memorable experiences amongst bird-watchers and nature lovers. One bird watcher paid more than $1,000 at an auction to spend a day watching whooping cranes—I know, as I was the tour guide! A multi-million dollar visitor center was constructed at Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Central Wisconsin due to the popularity of the whooping crane viewing. Clearly, whooping cranes and other wildlife were seen as economic assets to that refuge!
Why would we now even consider endangering our whooping cranes by allowing a sandhill crane hunt to ensue in Wisconsin? To do so would be counterproductive, counterintuitive, and downright irresponsible.
Were a sandhill crane hunt to be approved, it is not a question IF whooping cranes would be shot, but rather it is a question of HOW MANY will be accidentally (and perhaps deliberately) shot by uninformed or careless hunters. Not to mention other “look alike” wetland species that will also be unnecessarily sacrificed —the rare trumpeter swan (another successfully reintroduced species to Wisconsin), great blue herons, egrets and American bitterns, all dwindling waterbirds.
It is a logical assumption, “As goes Wisconsin, so go other states.” Were Wisconsin to enact a crane hunt, so too would other states in the sandhill – and now whooping – crane flyway. Ten whoopers have already been shot in a handful of southern states since 2000, even without a legal hunting season on sandhill cranes. It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that whooping cranes will be imperiled throughout eastern United States were one or more states where whoopers occur allow crane hunting.
I am not anti-hunting, and I appreciate and acknowledge that a high percentage of hunters are responsible and know their game species well, but it would only take a few careless shots in those milliseconds of frenzied excitement to impact a federally-endangered species, the whooping crane.
Dare we risk the loss of even one whooping crane of our 100+ Wisconsin birds? I argue, NO! … to a sandhill crane hunt in Wisconsin.
Charlie is a conservation biologist trained in ornithology (MS, UW-Madison) with 30 years of experience working with wetland and waterbird conservation, including involvement in crane, stork and ibis conservation in Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America. He served nine years as director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, one of the eight original partners in the whooping crane reintroduction effort in Wisconsin. The Foundation has contributed over $600,000 to the whooping crane project since 2012.