Attendees endorsed the idea of hunting sandhill cranes at a series of “advisory only” public hearings around Wisconsin this week, according to a tally state wildlife officials released Wednesday.
The Wisconsin Conservation Congress asked everyone who attended its annual statewide spring hearings on Monday whether they support a sandhill season. Attendees approved the idea by more than two-to-one margin, according to a count the state Department of Natural Resources released Wednesday afternoon.
The vote promises to give conservative legislators more leverage as they advance legislation authorizing a hunt — and ratchet up an already bitter debate in a state that both prides itself on its hunting culture and serves as home to the International Crane Foundation, one of the world’s premier crane conservation organizations.
Hunting advocates contend the state’s crane population has exploded and the creatures are gobbling farmer’s seeds. Bird lovers, though, counter hunters already kill too many animals and a crane hunt would do little to control crop damage.
“It’s not been very well thought out. Crop damage is an important issue, but it won’t be solved by hunting,” said Jeb Barzen, the ICF’s ecology director.
Sandhill cranes, tall, thin birds eerily reminiscent of prehistoric pterodactyls, were hunted to near extinction as the 20th century began. They’ve rebounded dramatically, however, and are now found throughout North America and eastern Siberia. Wisconsin, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, have become key nesting grounds for a flock of about 70,000 cranes that migrate up and down the eastern half of the United States. Thousands of people volunteer to help the ICF count them every year.
But more Wisconsin farmers have been complaining about sandhills consuming corn seeds right out of the fields during spring planting.
Thirteen states already allow sandhill hunting and the Wisconsin DNR has said this state’s population could support a limited hunt. Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have added Wisconsin to the list, saying a hunt would help farmers cut down on crane crop damage and cranes are tasty, calling them “the rib-eye of the sky.”
The measure outraged bird lovers and ignited a fierce debate over how much hunting is too much in a state that allows hunters to go after deer, wolves, turkeys, pheasants, ducks, bears and even mourning doves, the state’s official peace symbol.
Republican leaders never held a vote on the measure and it died when the legislative session ended last month. The Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR, still included the hunt question on its spring hearing survey. The question began with a lead-in paragraph stating that sandhills are causing “high levels” of crop damage and asked people if they would support the congress if it asked lawmakers for a hunt.
According to the DNR’s count, about 2,560 people voted “yes.” About 1,271 people voted “no.” Overall, 65 counties approved the idea, four rejected it and three tied.
But bird lovers cried foul Wednesday.
Karen Etter Hale, vice president of the Wisconsin Audubon Council, said the congress hearings typically attract hunting and fishing enthusiasts and don’t represent the public at large. Thousands of people remain opposed to the hunt, she said.
The ICF’s Barzen, meanwhile, pointed out that federal law limits migratory bird hunts to the fall, when the birds aren’t breeding. Sandhills do their damage in the spring, when farmers plant. If farmers really want to solve the crane crop problem, they can use repellent on their seeds, he said. So the real question, he said, is whether hunters want another target.
“We do a disservice to those growers … by saying we will solve your problem when we know absolutely it will not,” the ICF’s Barzen said. “It’s about how we want to use this resource. There’s no question you can sustainably harvest birds from this population. (But) just because it exists doesn’t mean you should eat it or shoot it.”
Casey Langan, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, countered that repellent is too expensive at $5 to $7 an acre and cranes would simply move to untreated fields. Even a limited fall hunt would reduce the population and cut down on crop damage, he said.
“We’re glad to see the public … embraced this vote,” said Casey Langan, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. “This isn’t a front burner issue in Wisconsin agriculture, but it is significant for some growers. This hunt should be a management option.”
John Edelblute of Hartford, chairman of the congress’ migratory bird committee, acknowledged a hunt probably wouldn’t end crane crop damage, calling that argument “pretty far-fetched.” Still, he said, hunters have been pushing for a crane season for a long time and the congress will now approach lawmakers.
“If that’s what (the public) wants, we’ll go for it,” he said.
Kleefisch called the vote encouraging as he ponders introducing another bill when the next legislative session begins in January.
“In Wisconsin, there’s a constitutional right to hunt and fish,” Kleefisch said. “If we have sustainable hunting and fishing resources, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a carefully considered, sustainable hunting season for that species.”
Under current protocol a sandhill crane hunt is still at least four years out.
Todd Richmond Associated Press