Reflections on a Sandhill Crane Hunt

Image of two sandhill cranes in flight.
Sandhill cranes have become an iconic symbol of the Wisconsin sky. Like all symbols, their meaning depends on who is watching. 

I spent a day this fall clearing brush on an island in the Wisconsin River managed by the Aldo Leopold Foundation. This island is one of several used as a staging point for the fall sandhill crane migration. A few weeks later, my wife and I were able to spend an evening observing hundreds of cranes settle in for the night on similar island a short distance downstream. Observing the phenomenon from a beach just a stone’s throw from the Leopold shack was indeed moving.

Today, I came across an article from the Spartan Newsroom reflecting on efforts to initiate sandhill crane hunts in Michigan and Wisconsin. Interest in such a hunt has ebbed and wained over the past twenty years. It appears to be a bright and shining wedge issue driven home just in time to get political blood boiling for a mid-term election. This is no coincidence, it is a calculated and cynical effort to pit us against one another. Professional advocates and radical elements on either end of the political spectrum want to use sandhill cranes to bolster their careers by getting us to hate one another. It is even being used by an aging rock star desperate to maintain his relevance.

Sandhill Crane Hunt Background

The old saying goes, “You broke it; you bought it.” European settlers permanently altered the entire ecosystem in the Upper Great Lakes. Through overhunting and DDT we drove the numbers of sandhill cranes to near extinction. In the mid 1970s, my college roommate studied sandhills as the topic of his senior thesis. We spent many days cruising the wetlands and fields of the Kettle Moraine and south central Wisconsin. At that time there were though to be somewhere around 600 left. These birds were so secretive that researchers did not know where they nested or even how many eggs they laid.
After leaving the region for fifteen years in the 1980s, I returned to find sandhill cranes common on the landscape and beginning to become an agricultural pest. Their population growth puts them on course to becoming a problem species, like Canada geese. Nobody wants to see happen.

Wildlife biologists have the tools to manage sandhill populations. While not everything is known they know a great deal and will improve their management skills for the species as successive hunts provide additional data.

Taking Sides

Yes, we all love the esthetic value of cranes. Watching them is a joy, even as they heckle golfers on the fairway. But beauty and grace are not a substitute for ethical stewardship. Refusing to manage the population growth of sandhill cranes is itself irresponsible. By removing most top predators, we have screwed up the natural balance within the system. To pretend otherwise is ignorant at best and quite possibly disingenuous.

Using jackass statements like “ribeyes in the sky” echoes the calls market hunters who drove the species to near extinction. The only thing worse than doing nothing would be to repeat the fiasco that was the 2020-21 Wisconsin wolf hunt. Responsible conservation demands thoughtful decisions based on solid science. When politicians and rightwing provocateurs replace good science with knee jerk demands, nothing good can come of it. 

Just a word about hunting groups and their role. Responsible conservation organizations have proven themselves reliable partners in wildlife conservation. Their tireless and thoughtful participation have allowed the broad range of game species to recover and thrive over the past century. these folks listen to scientists; while they generously volunteer their time and dig deep to financially support wildlife conservation. Politicians would do well to listen to their council when crafting policy for a sandhill crane hunt. It require care to separate these good faith actors from political mischief makers, who use hunting as a stalking horse.

In Closing

We need to adequately fund wildlife biologists to ask and answer the relevant questions. Those who manage the scientists and legislators who set policy have a solum responsibility to their constituents to listen and act on the science. A sustainable hunt is likely to be among the most valuable management tools available for longterm health of sandhill cranes. If Aldo Leopold and Winston Churchill taught us anything it is that while science may not have all the answers right now; like democracy, wildlife science is better than all the alternatives.

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