This update is reprinted from the May 2012 issue of The ICF Bugle. Read the full issue
This past February, Wisconsin legislators introduced an assembly bill that would authorize the hunting of Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin. The bill was defended as a necessary measure to reduce crop depredation caused by Sandhill Cranes, and to enable farmers to apply for wildlife damage abatement assistance and claim payments. News of the proposed crane hunt spread rapidly in Wisconsin, and ultimately became a national news story. ICF was interviewed more than 20 times in the weeks that followed, appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, and our social media team was abuzz with Facebook, Twitter, and web site postings.
No action was taken on the bill by the time the legislative session ended, and any future Sandhill hunt in Wisconsin will require new legislation. Nonetheless, hunting of the eastern Sandhill Crane population was approved in Kentucky, is under consideration in several other states, and will no doubt be proposed again for Wisconsin in the future.
We learned many valuable lessons from the stir that was created by the proposed hunting of Sandhills in our own backyard. These lessons will guide us as we seek to engage most effectively on this issue with our members and our broader community of hunters, farmers, environmentalists, and all concerned citizens.
Legislators and other decision makers must be fully informed about the important work ICF is doing to solve crop depredation by Sandhill Cranes. ICF played a key role in developing a chemical deterrent (Avipel) that offers a much better alternative for reducing crop damage than a limited crane hunt could ever achieve. The total area that farmers have chosen to treat has grown every year since we first received permission to deploy the technique from the U.S. EPA in 2006, and more than 76,000 acres of corn in Wisconsin were successfully treated in 2011. Read our update on solving crane-related crop damage.
We are increasingly aware of serious concerns about the impact of Sandhill Crane hunting. We know that hunting, if not properly controlled, can harm crane populations. We are painfully aware of how hunting led to the demise of the western and central Asian populations of Endangered Siberian Cranes. We believe that hunting of the Mid-Continent population of Sandhill Cranes in Ontario and Minnesota has likely led to overharvest of the Greater Sandhills that nest on the northeastern prairies. We are concerned that hunting of the Eastern Population of Sandhill Cranes could limit their dispersal and re-colonization of the northeastern United States. We are worried about how states will limit accidental shooting of reintroduced, endangered Whooping Cranes if more widespread hunting is approved throughout the eastern migratory route shared by Sandhill and Whooping Cranes. And we have argued that proposed harvest rates for the Eastern Population are too high. Although their population has expanded rapidly over the 60+ years since Aldo Leopold penned his requiem for the species in Marshland Elegy, Sandhills do not share the rapid reproduction rates typical of game bird species and must be carefully managed to avoid the over-harvest of long-lived adults.
Finally, ICF has long maintained three strong positions relative to crane hunting, which are deeply aligned with our organizational mission and desired conservation impact:
• Cranes need help from everyone – including hunters, wildlife enthusiasts, farmers, and other landowners – especially to conserve the wetlands on which cranes and other waterbirds depend for their survival.
• Any decisions about hunting should be based on the best scientific information available.
• It is crucial for individuals to participate in public discussions on the subject. As experts in crane biology and as managers of a long-term database on an eastern U.S. Sandhill Crane population, our role is to provide information and assessment relevant to issues, such as hunting and crop damage, considered by states as they make management decisions on Sandhill Cranes.
We recognize that these positions do not reflect the strong emotional and spiritual connection many of us feel towards cranes. Cranes have drawn us together as a family. Around the world, cranes have an ethereal, almost transcendent value. Red-crowned Cranes, Sarus Cranes, Brolgas, and Black-necked Cranes are revered in their regions’ cultures. Black Crowned, Grey Crowned, and Blue Cranes are honored as national birds in Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa, respectively. And every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the Platte River in Nebraska, Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, and other locations to experience spectacular congregations of Sandhill Cranes.
ICF could adopt a position against Sandhill hunting based on these emotional and spiritual values, which do matter. However, the benefit of ICF’s approach to the issue of crane hunting is that we can do more for crane and wetland conservation by maintaining our balanced position, especially in the long-run, than we can accomplish by directly opposing hunting at this time. Inclusiveness is vital to achieving our mission, as polarization of ideas and values is often divisive and counterproductive. As a result of our approach ICF has, for example, direct working relationships with many farmers in many parts of the world, all of whom share a commitment to a future for cranes and wetlands on their lands, but also want to feel ICF is doing all we can to help them.
We live in a complex world, and there is no easy solution, no simple statement that will light the way forward. ICF is located in rural Wisconsin, and our community is steeped in Wisconsin’s rich conservation traditions, including hunting. I hope we can maintain the difficult but very real balance that allows ICF to continue to draw together environmentalists, hunters, farmers, and all who care deeply about the land.