Sandhills

By Callen Harty


Sandhill Cranes Feeding: Photo by Callen Harty

“The crane is wilderness incarnate.”–Aldo Leopold

When I first heard that State Representative Joel Kleefisch was looking to find co-sponsors for a bill to introduce hunting of sandhill cranes in Wisconsin I thought it was a joke. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website this is a species that was nearly decimated in the 1800′s due to habitat destruction and hunting. Due to the protection provided by a federal migratory bird act in the early 1900′s sandhills have made an incredible comeback and in the last couple decades their population has leveled off and remained fairly steady. Still, while they have made a remarkable comeback I didn’t think it was possible that the proposal was serious.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a population of 25,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin in October, according to a February 1 Chicago Tribune article on the proposal. In a report from the U.S.D.A. there were 78,000 farms in Wisconsin in 2009 and that remained unchanged in 2010. That’s one sandhill crane for every three farms. Though cranes are known to cause damage it doesn’t seem like there are enough of them to cause significant enough crop damage to call for killing them. In addition, the Baraboo-based International Crane Foundation, among others, has been doing studies on a non-toxic repellent to prevent this kind of damage. So why the call for a season on them?

According to Kleefisch cranes cause a tremendous amount of damage to farmers’ crops. They are especially known to forage for newly sprouted corn. But is Kleefisch’s claim accurate? Experts agree that they can do damage to corn crops, but is it an issue here? With the crane population remaining fairly stable over the last couple decades why would there be a sudden spike in crop damage now? Or is that Republicans did not have control of all branches of the state government as they do now? Perhaps it is not as much of an issue as Kleefisch would have us believe. According to United States Department of Agriculture reports from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service there were 58 complaints of crop damage from cranes in Wisconsin in 2004 and 55 in 2006. In the most recent report, from 2010, cranes were not even mentioned, though double-breasted cormorants, feral hogs, and other crop-damaging animals were seen as issues.

Kleefisch’s other claim is that cranes are “the rib-eye of the sky”. When Wisconsin passed a law to open a hunting season on mourning doves, our state symbol of peace, there were also claims that the doves would be good eating. A couple quick Google searches do turn up a significant number of recipes for sandhill crane and mourning dove meat, something that would never have occurred to me prior to hunting seasons being proposed for them, but is it really necessary to add this incredible bird to our diet?

Kleefisch didn’t really say much about the idea of just adding another species for hunters to stalk. Neither the mourning dove or the sandhill crane seem like there would be much sport to killing them. I have walked up to within several yards of both and shot them easily with my camera. It doesn’t seem like much of a sporting challenge. Is Joel Kleefisch that hungry for new taste sensations or new hunting challenges? Is it not enough that according to the Department of Natural Resources we already have hunting seasons on the following?:

  • White-tailed deer
  • Black bear
  • Canada goose
  • Wild turkey
  • Duck (several species)
  • Eastern cottontail rabbit
  • Squirrel (gray and fox)
  • Game birds (pheasant, bobwhite quail, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, and crow)
  • Migratory birds (mourning dove and woodcock)
  • Coyote
  • Beaver (trapping only)
  • Mink (trapping only)
  • Muskrat (trapping only)
  • Fox (red and gray)
  • Bobcat
  • Fisher (trapping only)
  • Otter (trapping only)
  • Raccoon
  • Opossum
  • Skunk (hopefully not for food)
  • Weasel
  • Snowshoe hare

I was as surprised to see crows on the list above as I will be to see sandhill cranes added to it. One of the greatest environmentalists ever, Wisconsin native Aldo Leopold, wrote lovingly of sandhill cranes in his seminal work, Sand County Almanac, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” To me, as well as Leopold, these birds are sacred. Talk of killing them, either for food or sport, is deeply disturbing. It is especially difficult given that widespread hunting almost permanently silenced the trumpeting call of these incredible birds more than a hundred years ago.

My spirit is awakened each spring by two things in particular–the sight of my first robin and the sound of sandhill cranes approaching. There is such an elegance to the way they look, such a primitive calling in their voices. I have listened to that trumpet in evolution’s orchestra and have been spiritually moved by it. I have watched a pair of sandhills conducting their ritual courting dance and was left filled with joy and awe. I have stood close to sandhill cranes and felt connected to nature in a way that nothing else has ever done, with the possible exception of great blue herons, another primitive that I love. One cannot look into those incredible orange eyes without deepening a sense of connectedness with the universe and feeling fuller in one’s human core. This is a species that we can get by without hunting.

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